SMACKING GUM AND puffing on cigarettes, a few female cops left their uniforms at home yesterday and hit the Kensington Avenue corridor in little more than tank tops, tight shorts and seductive smiles.
Their goal: To land some losers horny enough to pay for sex on a sultry summer morning. A small army of undercover officers loitered unheeded nearby, ready to swarm the minute a pretend prostitute and her unsuspecting john agreed on a price.
They reeled in their first catch within 15 minutes: an older, potbellied man. Normally, such arrests and secret stings go almost unnoticed.
But yesterday, undercover cops in and around Kensington hauled the johns to the Harrowgate Shopping Center, where a crowd of camera-carrying journalists awaited. The reporters peppered the men with questions and chronicled their every move as officers processed their arrest paperwork.
Without a word, the first john offered ample proof that the public shaming was effective: If his head had hung any lower, it'd have rested in his lap. "She flagged me down," he protested, insisting he hadn't pulled his minivan over to solicit sex.
Police invited the press to their sting targeting johns yesterday, with the goal of humiliating them and discouraging other johns from seeking sex on the streets.
The tactic is one of several new strategies they're using to crack down on the world's oldest profession. Police also now confiscate the johns' cars and money, requiring them to appeal the seizure before a judge if they want their belongings back, said Lt. Derrick E. Wood, commanding officer of the citywide vice-enforcement unit.
And they're partnering with the District Attorney's Office to develop a "johns' school," a diversionary program they hope to have in place by the end of the year, Wood said. In the program, men convicted of patronizing a prostitute - a misdemeanor - would attend a daylong class learning about sexually transmitted diseases and talking with reformed prostitutes about the addiction, poverty or other problems that drove them onto the streets, Wood said.
"Prostitution is definitely a quality-of-life issue, and targeting the johns is another way to attack it," said Sgt. Joe Lanciano of citywide vice. "We want to discourage the demand."
Lanciano added: "This is not a victimless crime."
Yesterday, the vice officers nabbed six men in the 3 1/2-hour sting, including a taxicab driver and a 69-year-old man with a pocketful of Viagra, Wood said. Officers seized six cars and $2,000 in cash; if the suspects don't appeal the seizures, they'll go into the D.A.'s crime-forfeiture fund.
Police late yesterday identified the men they arrested as Benjamin Vonyan Allen, 54, of Levittown, Bucks County; Desmond Cunningham, 47, of Ogontz; John Francis, 49, of Mayfair; Robert Santiago, 36, of Kensington; Charles Elgart, 69, of Blue Bell, Montgomery County; and Stevenson Alcis, 35, of Oxford Circle.
Five of the men face charges of patronizing a prostitute; all six are charged with solicitation and Elgart, possessing a controlled substance - the Viagra.
Just since January, vice officers have arrested about 125 johns (and more than 300 women) on prostitution charges, Wood said.