In the bad old days of Seminole Heights' battle against prostitution, “We got no support (from the police) whatsoever,” said Southeast Seminole Heights Civic Association president Sherry Genovar-Simons. “We were told a hundred times, “Well, don't live there. This is what you get because of where you live.”
But Thursday night it was clear how things have changed as Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor announced the new Prostitution Enforcement Zone (PEZ) program in the parking lot of the Seminole Heights Baptist Church.
“It's just a whole different thing now,” Genovar-Simons said. “(The police) are very very community oriented, and they value what we say.”
A result of this synergy between police and residents is PEZ, a zone where a judge can ban a suspect with a felony prostitution arrest as a special probation condition. Tampa Police Capt. Lee Bercaw said the PEZ laws were drawn up in a collaboration between the Tampa Police Department and the State Attorney's Office.
Bercaw added that the law allows PEZ offenders to be inside the zone for certain stipulated exceptions, such as for a doctor's visit. The PEZ is bordered by Fowler Avenue on the north, 15th Street on the east, Florida Avenue on the west, and Seventh Avenue on the south.
Bercaw said the PEZ boundaries were established after a three year police study indicated that's where the bulk of the city's prostitution activity occurs.
Friday morning police announced 25 PEZ arrests made after a two day sting operation. Seven men and women were arrested on the first day, on charges of both offering to commit and soliciting to commit prostitution. On the second day, 17 men were arrested on charges of offering to commit and soliciting to commit prostitution, plus cocaine possession and parole violation.
“It's a great law,” said Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association crime awareness chair Shawn Hicks, a resident who, along with Genovar-Simons and others, made local headlines in the early 2000s by patrolling along Nebraska Avenue at night and shining flashlights on hookers and their johns.
Hicks said that even though prostitution is down overall in the Seminole Heights portion of the Nebraska Avenue corridor, the PEZ law should be effective at interrupting a cycle that many prostitutes operate on.
“They get busted three times,” Hicks said, “then leave town, and go work in another. Over time they would cycle through these towns, and come back here every few years. So over time (PEZ) will help keep this area from getting a reputation as a place for prostitutes to do business. It's another way of killing their business model — first the shadowing, now this probation restriction.”