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Woods & Brangwin, PLLC

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East Wenatchee, Washington 98802

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Prostitution Sting - A Good Use of Your Tax Dollars?
Written by Steven Woods
Thursday, 20 January 2011 01:26
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A recent story in the Wenatchee World noted that five men were arrested for attempting to solicit a prostitute in Wenatchee.  These arrests were the result of a sting operation masterminded by the Wenatchee Police Department.  With all of the news about budget shortfalls, layoffs and decreased revenue, it might be interesting to look at what this sting likely cost the City of Wenatchee, and compare it to what it achieved.


First, let’s look at what it achieved.  Five men were arrested for patronizing a prostitute.  The more accurate description might be attempting to patronize a prostitute, as there was actually no prostitute involved. Instead, there were three police officers and an un-named female Confidential Informant who was posing as a prostitute over the phone and not even present at the time of these arrests.  But there is no need to quibble about the exact nature of the charge.  What is important to this discussion is what the police were trying to accomplish.  A police department Sergeant was quoted in the paper as saying, “We just don’t want prostitution in our city.” So we have to presume the goal of the sting was to discourage prostitution by arresting the customers.

Fair enough.  While one can debate about whether prostitution should be a crime when it is between two consenting adults, the fact remains that it is a crime and so is patronizing a prostitute.  And arresting johns trying to hire a prostitute will likely inhibit business for real prostitutes.  But this begs the question of whether prostitution is such a big problem in Wenatchee that we need to expend any of our town’s limited resources to combat it.  While there is almost certainly some prostitution going on around town, as there probably is in every city, there is no obvious “red light district”, no hordes of young hookers walking the street at night, and no conspicuous solicitation going on anywhere.  Drive up North Aurora Avenue in Seattle some night if you want to see what a prostitution problem looks like, and there is nothing remotely resembling that activity in Wenatchee.  So it appears the Wenatchee Police Department is spending its resources, your tax dollars, and trying to stop a problem that is not much of a problem at all.

So what type of resources was expended to try to quell this prostitution non-problem?  Calculating the exact dollar cost is beyond the scope of this article and will not even be attempted, but here is what we do know.  The sting involved five police officers, including one captain, three of them waiting in a rented room at a local motel.   These officers had earlier placed an ad on, an internet classified ad service similar to Craigslist.  They enlisted the help of a Confidential Informant who posed as the prostitute and provided her a pre-paid cell phone to answer calls from prospective customers.  It is unclear how much time it took to arrange all of this, but it had to have taken the officers some time to get it all planned and organized.  The night of the arrests three police officers waited in the hotel room for the five disappointed and surprised patrons to arrive one by one and be arrested.   After being arrested each was either taken to the jail and booked, or cited and released, all of which takes time.  It is likely fair to say that the entire operation could hardly have consumed less than one full shift of each officer’s time, and almost surely much more. 

The lowest paid new recruit on the WPD earns $4389.48 per month, a Police Officer First Class earns $5700.62, and presumably a captain earns even more although that figure was not readily available.  (The salary information used here was obtained from the City’s website; the website caps out at Sergeant who earns $6555.71 per month.)  If we use the Officer First Class salary as an average of the three officers involved then each officer earned about $265 in salary just for the night spent arresting johns in a motel room, for a total of nearly $800.  Adding in the other 2 officers who worked on this case and the total has to be well in excess of $1000.  And keep in mind this is conservatively estimating only one shift per officer when in fact setting up the entire operation may have taken more time, and there may have been even more time spent in processing these 5 individuals.  But to be conservative we have used just one day’s pay.

The motel room and cell phone had to cost something, so let’s guess about $100 for both.  We will further assume that the confidential informant was working for free, as they are often recruited to help the police as a result of some deal struck that pertains to unrelated legal trouble in which they find themselves.  The online ad was likely free also, other than the time it took to set it up and check the responses.

The story and the cost to the City do not end with the five arrests.  If  the defendants were jailed, then the city is billed for the time they spent in jail.  Each night in jail results in the City being billed about $75.  If all five were jailed even for just one night this cost the City $375.  The rest of the costs are going to be impossible to even approximate, but should be discussed anyway.

All five men will now be processed through Chelan County District Court, which handles all cases brought by the City of Wenatchee.  Each man will be required to appear before the judge at least once for an arraignment.  If a guilty plea is entered this will be his only appearance and the end of the cost to the City, unless he is sentenced to more jail time.  But if he pleads not guilty the cost just climbs, and most defendants do not plead guilty at their first appearance.

Patronizing a prostitute is a crime.  Everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a lawyer, and one is appointed by the court if he cannot afford to pay for one.  A high percentage of defendants are unable to pay for a lawyer and receive public defenders.  So any or all of these five men pleading not guilty will cost the city more money in legal fees.  Plus, a prosecuting attorney will handle the case for the City, and those lawyers work for a private law firm that holds a contract to do this job by the hour and have to be paid by the city as well.  More court time involves more judicial resources, such as the judge’s time, court clerks and bailiffs.  Even if these cases end up in some sort of a plea bargain there has to be one or more court appearance by each of the defendants.

If these cases cannot be resolved with a plea bargain then they end up in a six-person jury trial, which consumes an entire day of the court’s time, along with the time of the defense lawyer, prosecuting attorney and everyone else in the courtroom.  The District Court Judges each make more than $141,000 per year, plus benefits, not to mention the cost of the support staff, the physical courtroom itself, the security staff and equipment and everything else that goes into running a large governmental entity.  It is very hard to put an exact figure on this cost, but it is interesting to note that the entire budget for Chelan County District Court is more than $1,080, 800 per year.  This breaks down to a cost per business day of nearly $4200.  There are only 2 courtrooms and 2 judges, so an interesting guess for the daily cost of one courtroom and one judge has to be about $2100.  If all 5 cases go to trial, which is admittedly unlikely, the cost of the court’s trial time alone would exceed $10,000.

So to summarize, the cost of this prostitution sting starts with the cost for five police officers.  Then there are the out-of-pocket costs of the operation.  To this add jail costs.  Then add the cost of public defenders and prosecuting attorneys. Don’t forget the cost for the court’s time.  The total cost runs from something just above $1500 to something as high as maybe $15,000 if all five men decide to fight this charge to the bitter end.

Which brings us back to the original question:  Is this a good use of the City’s extremely limited resources?  Other questions naturally follow.  Is prostitution a big enough problem in Wenatchee to justify this type of expense?  Is this the best way to spend our tax dollars?  Should the Wenatchee Police Department commit nearly 10% of its total manpower one night to an operation like this?  Do the forty four sworn officers of the Wenatchee Police Department have nothing better to do?

There may be some among you that will think that this was money well spent.   There are likely more of you that will think this was a foolish waste of resources.  But all of us should spend a minute to at least ask ourselves the questions posed here, not just about this sting but about many other uses of tax money.  Times are tight for the City, budget shortfalls are large, many departments have had their funding reduced, and some employees fear for their jobs.  In this climate, should the police be spending tax dollars in this way?




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