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Not long ago, a teenage neighbor of Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff was taking out the garbage in the south Minneapolis neighborhood where she lived.
In the few minutes it took for her to walk from the family's home to a nearby trash bin, a man in a slow-moving vehicle summoned her to his car, looking to exchange money for sex. Schiff was horrified.
Yet it's a scene that has played out for decades along the Lake Street corridor in south Minneapolis, an area that for decades has been notorious for prostitution. Whether teenagers walking to and from South High School or young women waiting at the bus, the unwanted solicitation by "johns" has left civic leaders such as Schiff fed up and ready to take a new approach -- if the rule of law isn't a strong enough deterrent to the men looking for illegal sex, perhaps advertising their public humiliation will be.
Enter a huge electronic billboard at the intersection of Interstate 35W and Lake Street, which fired up Wednesday with direction to www.johnspics.org, a city website that prominently displays photos of men convicted or charged with soliciting prostitution within the past six months. Clear Channel, which donated the billboard space, will run the signs for the next six months. Though the photos have been online since 2004, the new Web address will be easier for drivers to remember.
The billboard marks the latest in several efforts to deter prostitution in the Twin Cities. In 2004, the city launched a website that shows photographs and describes the vehicles of offenders. St. Paul launched its own similar website in 1997.
Although the billboard is digital, the city and Clear Channel have refrained from displaying the culprits' photos directly on the billboard.
Additionally, the Minneapolis city attorney's office is now taking a tougher stance on prosecuting johns, seeking convictions for those who solicit prostitutes -- including first-time offenders. Previously, first-time offenders in Minneapolis would have to complete a restorative justice and education program as part of their probation to prevent a conviction from appearing on their record. Legislation is also in the works to make prostitution in a public place a gross misdemeanor.
Despite the Minneapolis Police Department's best efforts, the steady stream of johns who come from near and far has consistently outlasted the police resources it takes to arrest them, said Third Precinct Inspector Lucy Gerold.
"If you let up for a second, they come back," Gerold said. "There is such a vast number of johns that we couldn't keep up with it, no matter how many resources we have."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921