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Fighting Crime is Bad Publicity

Prostitution sting is a success, but motel owner worries about his reputation.

The sting went perfectly. On Oct. 27, female police officers put on short-shorts and tight, low-cut shirts, then walked suggestively up and down the sidewalk between Richmond Highway and one of several motels, making it clear that anyone who wanted to stop could arrange a tryst in one of the motel’s rooms.

Nineteen men were charged with solicitation after discovering that the object of their desire was a police officer leading them to a motel room loaded with her colleagues.

Lt. John Brennan, of Mount Vernon’s neighborhood patrol unit, helped organize the sting, which was conducted by a county-wide street crimes unit. He said the stings are a deterrent not only to customers who are busted, but to anyone who hears about the stings and knows that there’s a chance the street-walker who tempts them may be a police officer. “It just puts it in the backs of people’s minds,” Brennan said.

But Shakeel Kahn, the owner of the Alexandria Motel, one of the establishments where the police set up the sting, thinks about another message that is put in people’s minds. He considers the hundreds of drivers who see the streetwalker in front of his hotel but will never learn that she is actually a law enforcement officer. “If 1,000 persons pass by here,” he said, “985 persons are not interested in this thing.”

Kahn stressed that he was grateful to the police for tackling the prostitution problem on Richmond Highway, and would be happy to let them use his motel rooms for their busts. But he wished the women would go down the street, or across it, when advertising their wares. “When those police officers disguise themselves as prostitutes and stand in front of my property, that gives my property a reputation to the general public.”

This is the second time this year that the Alexandria Motel has been one of two motels used for prostitution stings. Both times, Kahn was not consulted. A male undercover officer rented a room from him, and Kahn only learned what was going on when, during the course of his usual monitoring of his rooms, he saw a van and an SUV pull up to the room and disgorge a crew of masked police officers.

Brennan was present for the first sting, and remembered being questioned by Kahn. But he said that alerting motel owners could mean a tip-off for potential suspects. He added that it would be impractical for the officers posing as prostitutes to work at a remove from the motel where the sting was being staged. For their safety, they must always be within eyesight of their backups.

KAHN SAID HIS MOTEL is a haven for families that need long-term housing and for people desperately in need of a cheap place to spend a cold night. “When the shelters are full, people come over and rent rooms.”

With a rent of $40 to $50 a night, Kahn said his establishment is the only option for many people. “If I sell a room for 80 bucks, I tell you, where are these poor people going to come and rent a room?”

Keeping prices low, means Kahn has low margins for aesthetic improvements. His motel appears down-at-the-heels compared to newer chain motels on the highway, fueling stereotypes. But there is a legitimate market for its rooms.

Kahn said the area’s high cost of housing means people working low-wage jobs often can’t scrape together money for a deposit on a longer, cheaper lease. He has owned the motel for six years, and some of the people in his rooms were there when he arrived. Six or seven of his 27 rooms are rented by the week, some by families. On a yellowed rental form sitting in the slot for one room, the renter listed his occupation as a manager at an area grocery store. Kahn pointed to the date beside the signature, 1999. “This is his home,” Kahn said.

Because of these loyal customers, prostitution is bad for business. “I have people that have been living here for years,” Kahn said. “For one bad fish I don’t want to ruin the whole pond.”

To demonstrate his commitment, Kahn brought down a clipboard from where it hung above his check-in window. It was an alphabetized list with hundreds of names. “These people know — if they ever come here, they will never get a room.”

The reasons for being blacklisted from the Alexandria Motel were various. The list included notations like “high traffic,” “TROUBLE DRUGS,” “(vomited).” Most names had nothing written beside them. Kahn said nearly every female named was a prostitute.

“I cannot read the foreheads of the new customers that come over here. But I can definitely refuse the old customers who cause trouble.”

BRENNAN PRAISED KAHN’S vigilance. “I think it’s great that the owner wants to clean up.” But he said that as long as Kahn kept his rates low, he would always have a problem with prostitution. “They’re still there, whether he knows it or not.”

Deborah Vernon, works the desk at the Fairview Motel next door to the Alexandria. In the report released to the press, the Fairview was mistakenly named as one of the establishments where the stings took place. Vernon said the area has a problem with prostitutes “at night, during the day, all the time. They’re always walking up and down the street.”

She has watched both stings that took place at Alexandria Motel. “They were pulling them in, I’ll tell you.”

She said her policy is never to rent to anyone she suspects of being a prostitute. But she has few opportunities. Most of her guests live there permanently, and few rooms open up. She said the guests appreciate the relief brought to the neighborhood by the prostitution stings. She pronounced herself “definitely” in favor of the police action. “I think it gets a lot of traffic on the street.”

Each of the 19 people arrested in the October sting were handed a letter written by Capt. Mike Kline, the commander of the Mount Vernon Station.

“This initiative was conducted at my request based on citizen complaints and the police department’s own intelligence,” the letter reads in part. “I would like to take this time, now that we have your undivided attention, to inform you that both engaging in the act of prostitution and soliciting the services of a prostitute constitute extremely high risk behaviors,” including the threat of violence and of disease. The letter encourages blood-testing and gives contact information for county health services.

Brennan said the street crimes unit makes decisions about where to stage their stings, and the success of the first sting at the Alexandria may have set the stage for a sequel. “Sometimes when you get set up in an opportunity you continue to go to the well. As long as it continues to be to successful, those are the areas they’ll try and hit.”

But he said he would consult with the street crimes unit about a new location for future operations.