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Queens Plaza crackdown discourages prostitution

As a judge reviews a controversial new move by the city to bar some suspected prostitutes and pimps from the public streets of Queens Plaza, police brass say attention to the area has already had an impact on prostitution-related crime.

"The media attention has helped," said Capt. Michael Bryan, commanding officer of the 108th Precinct. "Johns read the newspapers, too."

Queens Plaza straddles the line dividing the 108th and 114th precincts in Long Island City, and the captains of the two precincts have been cooperating in an operation to rid the area of prostitutes, pimps and johns, a constant complaint of community groups.

In the latest effort, lawyers representing the city and the Police Department are seeking an injunction prohibiting 20 suspected prostitutes and pimps from setting foot within a several-block area of Queens Plaza during late night hours. If it is granted, the tough new measure could set a precedent for other parts of the city.

Queens Supreme Court Judge Arthur Lonschein is expected to rule on the injunction, which civil liberties groups have decried as unconstitutional, by the end of the month.

In the meantime, Bryan and Capt. Joseph O'Brien of the 114th Precinct, which covers Astoria and Long Island City, say the attention and increased police presence have scared off at least some of the johns and prostitutes. O'Brien commanded the 108th Precinct, which serves Woodside, Sunnyside and Hunters Point, before moving to the 114th in January.

"I've seen what appears to be a decrease in activity," O'Brien said.

O'Brien said the two precincts' multi-pronged approach began with a command post, consisting of two police officers and one supervisor, stationed in Queens Plaza just to make arrests there.

"That had a positive effect," O'Brien said.

The command posts were in place for a month through last weekend, but traffic barriers are still in place, O'Brien said. Officers in the 108th Precinct set up the wooden barriers on the 108th side of Queens Plaza, diverting the stream of would-be johns into traffic checkpoints.

"That kind of disrupted the johns, which is really good," he said.

Operation Losing Proposition, which uses undercover officers disguised as prostitutes, has also yielded several arrests and at least three confiscated vehicles, Bryan said.

"All the pressure's being applied from all sides," Bryan said.

The police presence in Queens Plaza has resulted in 45 prostitution-related arrests in the 108th Precinct alone in the first six weeks of 2000, compared to 350 such arrests in all of 1999, Bryan said. Statistics for the 114th Precinct were not available as of press time.

Some of the prostitutes tried stationing themselves in the courtyards of the Queensbridge Houses housing project several blocks north of Queens Plaza, but officers from the 114th began making arrests there as well, O'Brien said.

Police and lawyers representing the city allege that prostitution in Queens Plaza is part of an organized operation run by the Bloods street gang based in East New York in Brooklyn. But some community leaders were surprised by the allegation of gang activity.

"That was news to us," said Joseph Conley, chairman of Community Board 2, which is served by the 108th Precinct. "We just thought it was pimps and johns. This is something that's been talked about for years."

A long-term decline in prostitution will depend on stricter enforcement of existing laws, including giving jail time rather than fines for prostitution offenses, Conley said.

O'Brien said that even if the injunction is granted against suspected prostitutes and pimps with alleged gang connections, other police enforcement will still be necessary.

"There's still some local prostitutes in that area," he said.

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