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4,913 Aliases on File : Police Computer Outsmarts Streetwise Prostitutes

January 18, 1987|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

She was just one of thousands, a streetwise Hollywood prostitute who could beat the system. She used dozens of names. Time after time she was arrested, only to dodge lengthy jail terms by claiming to be a first-time offender.

"Before we could identify her, she was already before the judge," Hollywood vice Officer Frank Hintz recalled. "She'd get off with five days in County Jail . . . and be back on the streets."

But her tricks are a thing of the past, police say. Today, using a specialized vice-enforcement computer, the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollywood Division can match the prostitute to all 44 of her known aliases with the press of a button. If she tries a new name, officers can scan for her identity among thousands of fingerprints logged in the computer under numerical codes.

Rundown of 5,000 People

Police say the computer, the first of its kind in Los Angeles, has given officers an instant rundown of nearly 5,000 prostitutes in Hollywood, the hub of the sex trade in the city. The result, police say, has been unprecedented progress in the battle against prostitution and related crimes such as theft and narcotics sales, which are considered leading causes of Hollywood's decline.

"The system . . . has been a gold mine," said Hintz, who has operated the computer since its installation in 1983. "Prostitutes . . . are incessant liars. They'll go to court and say, 'My name is Jane Smith and I've never been arrested.' And they'll get five days in jail.

"But now we can come in and say, 'She has five prior (convictions).' And the judge says, 'OK, sweetie, 180 days.' "

The computer is designed to crack down on chronic violators by helping the courts enforce stiff repeat-offender laws. Five days in jail is the maximum penalty for a first-time offender for prostitution, Hintz said. But a third-time offender can get four months and a fourth-time offender can get up to six months. Hintz said the longer sentences have encouraged many prostitutes to leave town.

"Once you get popped with 180 days in jail, you're going to get the hell out of this city," Hintz said. "You're going to go elsewhere."

Although police officials say Hollywood still has the worst prostitution problem in Los Angeles, they credit the computer and a 26-member Prostitution Enforcement Detail, which also began operating in 1983, with improving the picture. Uniformed task-force members and plainclothes vice officers use the computer to keep track of arrest records, search warrants, identifying characteristics such as scars and Social Security numbers, and even to follow individual cases through the courts.

"If we didn't have it, we would still go out and make arrests," said vice Sgt. David E. Baca, who supervised the special enforcement detail for five months. "But we would be less effective. We couldn't home in on those hard-core, chronic offenders."

Prostitution arrests in Hollywood have climbed slightly since the computer and additional officers began operating--from 2,474 arrests in 1983 to 2,530 arrests in 11 months of 1986, police said. But prostitution is harder to detect because fewer prostitutes are staying in Hollywood once they get out of jail, according to police.

Cases involving chronic offenders, with 4 to 25 convictions, have dropped by nearly 1,000 a year in Hollywood since the computer was introduced, Hintz said. Chronic offenders who do turn up often go the route of one male prostitute who had been dodging lengthy jail terms with as many as 56 false identities.

Impact on Related Crimes

As police became able to identify him, Hintz said, the prostitute's jail time escalated sharply--to more than 250 days in 1984 and more than 260 days in 1985.

"This guy was involved in burglary, prostitution and lewd conduct going all the way back to 1979," the vice officer said. "By getting rid of the prostitutes, we're getting rid of a lot of related crimes like burglary and robbery."

Residents say the impact can be seen on the streets, particularly in areas where small motels have aggravated the problem.

"It's changed the whole picture," said Arland (Buzz) Johnson, a longtime community activist who owns the Tick Tock restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. "On Sunset Boulevard, you used to see maybe five prostitutes per block. Now I can sometimes go 10 or 15 blocks before I run across one.

"It's nothing like it was before--nothing at all."

The computer, a standard desk-top machine with two 10-megabyte hard-disk drives for storing information, occupies a tiny yellow room crammed with police files and computer printouts. One of those printouts, bound like a telephone book, contains the pseudonyms of all 4,913 prostitutes tracked since 1983--a list that numbers about 28,000 names.

"We've never dropped a name from the system," Hintz said. "We can allege prior convictions dating back five years" in court.

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