Frank Lomas was having trouble selling scooters at his Honda dealership on El Cajon Boulevard because prostitutes and pimps intimidated potential customers. His female employees weathered catcalls daily on their way to work.
"In the last four months, it got really bad here again," said Lomas, owner of House of Honda near 49th Street. "I could take you to the door and point out 50 girls. It was very detrimental to my business."
Bijan Shaw, manager of Techni Camera a few blocks farther east on El Cajon Boulevard, had a similar problem. "It used to be there were two on each corner," said Shaw.
But after a police sweep last weekend, prostitutes are more often followed by a patrol car than a suitor. The latest police crackdown is geared to attack a problem which has plagued the boulevard since the late 1970s after police drove massage parlors and prostitution rings out of downtown.
"We're trying to give around-the-clock attention to that area," said Lt. Ron Seden. "We have a number of people out there who know the game and tie up our officers." About 30 vice, patrol and traffic officers--assisted by vigilant residents and merchants--cover the area, roughly between Interstate 805 and College Avenue.
The weekend results: 197 police inquiries, 3 felony arrests, 38 misdemeanor arrests, and 232 traffic citations and warnings.
Prostitutes are now fleeing to lower Rosecrans Street, the Gaslamp District or out of the city, police say.
Police began the operation June 6 because of citizen complaints and a rise in the area's crime rate, including the February strangulation of a woman who was found in a parking lot.
"People ask, 'Isn't prostitution a victimless crime?' " said Lt. Bob Jones. "Well, it's not. There are a lot of spinoffs. What we're talking about here in terms of crime is people getting rolled, tricked and manipulated."
In the last six months, 51 armed robberies have occurred between the 3300 block and 7000 block of El Cajon Boulevard. Customers of prostitutes, or "Johns," are reluctant to report crimes because they are embarrassed about having engaged a prostitute, Jones said.
Prostitutes like El Cajon Boulevard because of its many late-night businesses, hotels and parking lots and because it is less densely populated than downtown, police said.
"There are a lot of people moving on El Cajon looking for services," Jones said. "There are plenty of sites for them to set up camp and ply their trade."
Seden said many prostitutes are from out of state. They come to San Diego in search of warmer weather or to escape police crackdowns in places like Vancouver or Seattle. "They have sort of established a foothold here," said Seden.
To establish a high-visibility presence, police are concentrating on issuing citations for minor offenses like jaywalking and littering, in addition to felony offenses such as prostitution, pimping and pandering.
Street merchants say the crackdown is paying off, at least for now. "I haven't noticed as much of a problem in the last few days," said Dottie Dennis, who owns a 7-Eleven store on the street. "In the last few days, the hookers (have been) followed by a foot policeman about 10 feet behind them. Whatever they're doing, it's working."
Most merchants and residents are pleased about the change, although the parade of police cars sometimes makes customers at Dookies Restaurant a little nervous, according to a bartender there.
Jack Barrell, pastor of East San Diego Presbyterian Church, located a short distance from El Cajon Boulevard at 52nd Street and Orange Avenue, said prostitution and narcotics transactions used to be visible at all hours in the church parking lot. "Since the (police have) been responding well, it's beginning to look like a residential area again," he said.
But merchants who have watched the street for a few years are quick to point out that a similar cleanup effort in 1984 was only partially successful. They say police can't keep up the pressure indefinitely and that the largely invisible and portable crime of prostitution can only be temporarily contained.
"Quite frankly, what happens is police stop a girl in the morning and bust her," said Lomas the Honda dealer, "and then you see her on the street again by 1 p.m. wearing the same clothes."
Police say the visible displays of prostitution cannot be ignored. "We do not plan to, or know how to, wipe out the practice of prostitution," said Sgt. Mike Lodge. "It kind of takes two to tango. As long as you have people who are willing to pay, there will be prostitution, and that's the way it's been for thousands of years. Our intention is not to eliminate prostitutes, but to put them out of business."
"Prostitution will always be there," said City Councilwoman Gloria McColl, whose district includes the segment of El Cajon Boulevard where police are concentrating their efforts. "It's a matter of letting people know that we will not tolerate it."
But some merchants expect the relief to be only temporary. "Give it another month and they'll be right back at the corner again," said Angela Major, manager of Food Center Market.
As Lomas described it: "It's like trying to kill roaches with a broom."