As the sun sank and the cold set in, Dallas PD mobile command centers idled in an empty lot behind a McDonald's off Lancaster Road and I-20, a stopover on a trucking line for long haulers. Plainclothes and uniformed officers massed near one of the trailers, walled in by the Dallas County Sheriff's Office big rig and a rolling medical clinic.
"If they have warrants out, bring them here," a plainclothes cop instructed the patrol officers. "You don't have to transport them to jail."
At a nearby table, stacks of sandwiches, bags of Cheetos and a box of Swiss Miss cocoa waited for the scantily clad, strung-out women the patrolmen would fetch from truck stops and street corners across southern Dallas tonight. The enforcement paradigm for sex workers in this city has been shifting for the last seven years. Instead of booking them straight into jail -- which law enforcement and the District Attorney's office acknowledge is "utterly ineffective" -- once a month they're rounded up, processed and interviewed by vice cops for leads, where they might get a tip, for example, on a trailer load of stolen electronics worth millions. Then a couple of community court judges will determine whether they're eligible for the Prostitute Diversion Initiative, an alternative to locking them up and releasing them back to the pimps and the streets from whence they came.
If they're eligible, willing to make a change, and their outstanding warrants aren't too egregious, the prostitution charges fall. At the Health and Human Services trailer, nurses will draw blood, test for sexually transmitted diseases and dole out preemptive doses of antibiotics. If they'll take it, caseworkers will arrange a warm bed at an area shelter, drug treatment if they need it and counseling. Sen. John Whitmire of Houston believes so strongly in this program he filed a bill last month that would require any Texas city with a population over 200,000 to follow Dallas' lead.
Renee Breazeale, a senior caseworker with the Dallas District Attorney's Office, says cracking the cycle of addiction, poverty and life experience that binds these women to the sex trade is tough. "I would disagree vehemently that prostitution is a choice," she says. "What choice do you have when all you've ever been told is that everything you got is between your legs? With those kinds of messages, what choice do they have?"
It can happen, though, she says. A woman using the pseudonym Jackie Jones got picked up for hooking in 2010 during a Prostitution Diversion Initiative round-up. "It was either get treatment or go to jail," she said. So, she got help. She was placed in transitional housing and, "I'm proud to say I've been clean since Dec. 2, 2010."
They can't all come back, though. Some will still work the truck stops and the lonely, itinerant men who populate them. It's a dangerous profession, and some get killed. There's an answer for that too. If the women will consent, their blood will be drawn and logged into a database that currently contains the DNA profiles of some 300 women. There are roughly 500 unidentifiable Jane Does who've been murdered along trucking routes across the country. According to Breazeale, the FBI has identified 39 distinct MOs -- a serial killer's predilection. If their DNA is entered into the database, they may at least have a shot at being identified if they go missing.
The initiative hopes to take the database -- the first of its kind, administered by the UNT Health Science Center -- national soon, and to grow it from hundreds of profiles into thousands. It's a cold-eyed but realistic idea, taking into account the inescapable fact that the woman police now escorted to the booking table was 18 times more likely to be murdered than a woman who doesn't hook.
She was small, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, swallowed up in windbreaker many times to big for her. Her face looked older, maybe mid- to late-30s, though it's difficult to account for the toll of age and circumstance. Soon, she was whisked into the DPD mobile command center for a debriefing by a waiting vice cop, and this vertically integrated microcosm of alternative criminal justice ground into gear.