`John TV' Attempts To Curb Prostitution In Kansas City Area

KANSAS CITY - It does not exactly make for riveting television, but every Wednesday morning, viewers of the local government cable-television channel here can tune in to a much-talked-about new program.

Slowly, color photographs of mostly men and a handful of women appear on the screen. Each photo includes the person's name, date of birth and place of residence - and identifies the person as having been "arrested for municipal offense related to prostitution."

Incongruously, some of the men in the photos smile, as if posing for a family portrait.

Above each picture is this disclaimer: "This person is innocent until found guilty by a court."

Welcome to "John TV," as people here call it, the latest attempt of law-enforcement officials to attack the problem of street prostitution. Thought to be the only program of its kind in the country, it is part of a broader movement to use the concept of shame and public humiliation to deter and punish crime.

It has also set off a classic debate over where to strike a balance between the desire for social order and neighborhood safety and the legal and constitutional rights of individuals.

On one side of the debate is Councilwoman Teresa Loar, whose district includes a stretch of Independence Avenue where street prostitution is rampant. She sponsored the measure that created the new television program.

"I don't care whom I embarrass or whom I humiliate," she said. "I'm not a moralist on a crusade here. I just want it out of my district. I'm a politician."

On the other side of the debate is Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Western Missouri office. "The fundamental legal point we want to make is that this scheme of the City Council punishes people without due process," he said.

A handful of other cities have variations of the Kansas City program. Authorities in Aurora, Colo., place ads in a local newspaper with pictures of those arrested for soliciting prostitution.

Miami uses its government-access cable channel for a broadcast similar to "John TV," but only after suspects have been convicted.

Just how effective a deterrent "John TV" will be in Kansas City is not clear. There is no way to determine how many people watch the program or record it. In its debut in May, the names and faces of 44 men who had been arrested in an earlier police decoy operation were broadcast to the community. Since then, the weekly numbers have ranged from zero to 12.

The most prominent person arrested for soliciting prostitution since the program began was a Kansas City Fire Department captain.

"It has absolutely affected demand" for prostitution, said Kristen Rosselli, an administrator in the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office. "People are fearful." Sgt. James Connelly, who heads the police department's vice and narcotics unit, said he has seen messages on the Internet warning of a crackdown on prostitution in Kansas City since the broadcasts began.

According to Connelly, street prostitution invariably involves more than the trading of sex for money. Virtually all of the prostitutes on Independence Avenue are drug addicts, meaning that drug dealers and drug houses are also in the neighborhood, he said.

Moreover, police here are investigating the murders of five women - four with links to Independence Avenue prostitution - as well as the disappearance of five other women with similar ties to prostitution.

Loar said she came up with the idea of "John TV" in response to a barrage of complaints from constituents in the racially mixed, lower-middle-class neighborhood along the commercial strip of Independence Avenue. "This goes on around the clock," she said. "It's not just Friday and Saturday nights. They're out there at 6 o'clock Tuesday morning. It was pretty nasty, ugly stuff."