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Royster says he had seen a similar program work in Seattle. "Within six months, it had a demonstrable change. Known drug dealers and known drug users exited. I don't know where they went, but it mixed it up. They weren't concentrated up there. Known prostitutes and johns disappeared," he says.
Kansas City police tried something similar in the 1990s. The idea behind the "Independence Avenue Zone" was to close the avenue to sex traffic by charging repeat offenders with probation violations. But police had to file paperwork to get arrest warrants, and the inefficient program didn't last.
SOAP and SODA would raise the stakes by making violations felonies. Such a change would require a vote of the Missouri General Assembly. (Royster is running for the seat currently held by Rep. John Burnett, who will be out in 2010 due to term limits.) It would also give police the ability to make arrests on sight, which is troubling to some observers.
Critics of SOAP and SODA say arresting women for felonies misses the point that they are victims, too. "I definitely think demand is what drives the whole problem," says Kristy Childs, who founded Veronicas Voice, an organization that helps sexually exploited women. "Without the demand, there would be no supply and there'd be no recruitment."
The way Jude Huntz sees it, SOAP and SODA amount to another acronym: NIMBY — "Not in My Back Yard." Huntz is director of human rights for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. He says SOAP and SODA pushers care only about their own "parochial concerns, not the concerns of the larger community and the people who find themselves trapped in drug addiction and a life of prostitution."
City Prosecutor Beth Murano and Maj. Anthony Ell, commander of the Kansas City Police Department's East Patrol Division, say police can't arrest the Northeast out of its problem. "We cannot have a single law-enforcement approach or a lock-'em-up approach," Ell says. "You have to deal with the root causes."
For the KCPDs vice squad, that means attacking demand. In a break from national trends, police here have arrested more johns than sex workers since 2007. That year, police made 201 arrests for patronizing (johns) and 136 arrests for solicitation (sex workers). In 2008, there were 226 for patronizing and 158 for solicitation.
"People are on us about arresting more of the johns," says Sgt. Brad Dumit of the vice squad. "We do, but people don't realize that."
Most people only see the streets. Royster says he proposed SOAP and SODA mainly to fight gang and drug activity by making the risk of penalties greater than the crime's reward, but neighbors also saw an opportunity to talk about prostitution. In July, years of pent-up anger spilled out at a community meeting at St. Anthony Catholic church on Benton. So many people showed up that organizers had to move the meeting from the basement to the sanctuary.
As Murano worked through her PowerPoint presentation, defining prostitution and its causes, one man popped off in frustration.
"We didn't come here for a lecture," he shouted from a pew. "Let's get started with the meeting. I don't think anyone came here for this."