Humiliation Is Latest Weapon In Crime Fight -- But Some Cities Have Found People Have No Shame

Public humiliation is the newest weapon cities are using against people who buy sex and drugs or drive drunk.

Starting next month, Kent plans to publicize each week the names of convicted drunken drivers and "johns" - those convicted of soliciting prostitutes - on the city's cable Channel 28.

Since November, Spokane has televised the names and addresses of convicted johns and arrested drug buyers on its City Cable 5.

And starting in March or April, the Seattle Municipal Court will make public a monthly list of convicted johns. The city has no plans to put the list on its cable-TV channel but it will post signs in prostitution-plagued neighborhoods warning those looking to buy sex of the new policy. Seattle Police make about 1,000 prostitution-related arrests annually.

"It's a simple strategy to embarrass these people so they go somewhere else," said Kent Mayor Jim White. "If people don't want their names on television, then they shouldn't break the law."

Trouble is, the people who buy sex or drugs often are shameless, or at least strongly addicted to their habits, say officials from cities across the nation who have tried this modern version of pillorying criminals in the town square.

"Nobody seems to be saying, `Gee, this is really humiliating,' " said Sherri Patten, spokeswoman for Aurora, Colo., a city of 242,000 outside Denver where a newspaper has published names of johns for about a year.

"It hasn't cut down on prostitution at all."

To up the shame ante, Aurora next week plans to take out a full-page newspaper ad featuring mug shots of about 30 johns, even ones who have not been convicted.

No amount of public flogging seems to make a dent in Miami's bustling sex trade, including emblazoning the names of convicted johns on freeway billboards around the city, said Miami Police Officer Delrish Moss.

"There hasn't been any dropoff in prostitution," Moss said of the city's three-year attempt with billboards. "I don't think many people have even noticed."

Moss said shame may be more effective in small towns, where "everybody knows everybody else" and "your neighbors can ask you about your court case." Many small-town newspapers regularly print names of arrested suspects, though most larger papers don't deem such newsworthy.

"It's not the function of a newspaper to shame any part of the community," said Michael Fancher, executive editor of The Seattle Times. "I would prefer we spend our resources trying to write broad stories on these social problems rather than just publishing a list of names.

"Plus we couldn't do it for all the communities we serve anyway. The (criminal) record is too big to be captured in any inclusive way."

For six months, Miami has scrolled names and addresses of sex buyers on the city's cable channel, Met 9. Cable officials said the program attracts a big audience, but police said they haven't seen a drop in prostitution.

In one Florida city, West Palm Beach, a decision by the mayor to buy newspaper ads announcing who was caught in a prostitution sting backfired when one of the men later was found not guilty.

The 75-year-old man, who claimed he was sexually impotent, sued the city in 1993 for defamation and invasion of privacy. Two judges ruled for the city, but appeals are pending. The city's legal costs so far are nearly $100,000.

As for the public humiliation? In one West Palm Beach ad, 57 men were identified. Three were arrested within a year for other crimes. One got married two days after the ad appeared, telling the Palm Beach Post he had an "understanding fiancee."

In a follow-up report, the Post found two men who said the ads in part caused their wives to divorce them, though one confessed he "wasn't home much" before the ad's publication anyway. For the rest, nobody knows whether they were shamed into giving up prostitutes or at least buying their sex elsewhere, the paper said.

Although prostitutes continue to ply their trade in West Palm Beach, officials say embarrassing sex customers has worked, though in unquantifiable ways.

"This story has made all the newspapers and generated a ton of publicity," said Mike Amezaga, assistant city attorney. "People here are now very aware they might become celebrities if they solicit a prostitute."

It's too early to tell whether Spokane's shame broadcasts are reducing that city's sex and drug trade, officials there said.

But one woman whose daughter was listed on the show for a drug arrest was called and berated by a neighbor, said City Councilman Chris Anderson, who voted against televising the names. Also, in several instances, people have been listed with an incorrect or false address, potentially implicating those who live at those addresses, he said.

"We feel like we have to do something about crime, but I'm not sure a public agency should be in the business of trying to humiliate anyone," Anderson said. "I think eventually we'll be sued, and it seems like a waste of resources."

It's important to remember the identities of arrested and convicted criminals are public anyway, regardless of whether an agency chooses to publicize them, local officials said.

In Seattle and Kent, city leaders intend to forge ahead with their public-embarrassment campaigns, targeting only those who have been found guilty.

"We have to take the anonymity out of prostitution and the drug market," said Seattle City Councilwoman Margaret Pageler. "If enough people learn about who's doing what illegal activity in their neighborhoods, then maybe we'll all come together and do something about ending this kind of blight."