Mark O’Brien: Hookers show that governing is tricky

A little controversy in my town shows how government is tugged in different directions.

Transpose it to your community and you can see the forces at odds in so many Florida cities as people disagree about what should be government priorities.

It was a fairly routine prostitution sting in Pensacola. An undercover police officer approaches an apparent streetwalker, they talk, she offers her services for a fee, and he arrests her. Or a woman is approached by a man who makes a proposition, only to learn that she’s wearing a badge and probably a tape recorder under her clothes. Busted!

Those arrested included nine alleged wannabe customers; the gossip quotient rose when the media published the names and mug shots and the town discovered that one of those arrested was a 72-year-old surgeon who has operated on half the residents.

Officers also arrested six people for soliciting for prostitution — five women and a man with long, wavy blond hair. (Warning: Don’t judge a hooker by his or her cover.)

This crackdown has been a periodic law-enforcement practice in Pensacola for more than 40 years, with mixed results. After a sting, illicit activity dwindles for a while, but then resumes, and the sheriff’s department makes another sting and catches more people, or the same people again. (Incidentally, despite our many churches, Pensacola is not a prudish place. Until the Navy cracked down for health reasons during World War II, brothels operated openly, old-timers say.)

Some critics say prostitution should be legalized, licensed and taxed. That’s a simplistic solution for a complex problem. Do we want to encourage this activity, as government has tempted people to gamble via state lotteries?

“Yes, honey, in America any little girl can work hard and grow up to be President, a physicist or a prostitute.”

Legalization wouldn’t be a cure-all, either. Some people will prefer the time-tested method of cruising dark streets and lurking on street corners because they will be unable or unwilling to follow the rules about licensing, health tests and taxes. The only difference is the legal prostitutes will be demanding the cops do more about their competitors, the illegal prostitutes.

The hooker sting also was criticized because it took a week to conduct. Critics said the cops’ time would have been better spent on more serious crime.

That may be true unless you live or work in the neighborhood where the prostitutes and their customers meet. Alcohol and drugs also are often involved.

Just because people live or work in a downtrodden area doesn’t mean they forfeit the right to a decent quality of life and stable property values.

So that’s the dilemma, not so easily solved. Government feels the heat either way.

It’s one more reason prostitution seems sure to forever hold its title as the world’s oldest profession.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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