Hollywood's gritty atmosphere of over-stimulated revelers, rogue nightclubs and street prostitutes is the working milieu of the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollywood vice unit, which gave PoliceMag.com a glimpse into their world.
The movie industry has helped make Hollywood a much more seductive idea than physical destination and, more recently, has exposed the underbelly as well. Hollywood's streets often become "tracks" for street prostitutes, and boisterous nightclubs shun operating rules. According to one officer, 2 a.m. is the "opening bell" for drivers who operate vehicles under the influence.
By its broadest definition, Hollywood geography covers the area between Normandie Avenue on east and West Hollywood on the west. The Hollywood (101) Freeway forms the northern boundary. Melrose Avenue is the cutoff on the southern edge.
The LAPD focuses much of its attention in a narrower band along Santa Monica, Sunset and Hollywood boulevards between Highland (near the Kodak Theater) and Western avenues.
These blocks usually feature the highest concentration of nightclubs and street prostitutes, providing vice officers the bread and butter of their case load. Lt. Jeffrey Pailet oversees three sergeants, 10 uniformed and eight plainclothes officers assigned to Hollywood Division and enforces vice with the system of the "three Cs"-citizen complaints, commercial violations and conspicuous activity.
Vice officers also investigate into online escort services.
The unit conducts trap-door stings to catch underage drinkers and a monthly trick task force using female undercover officers as bait to catch johns. Drunk-driving checkpoints near clusters of clubs ("cherry orchards") are organized by the LAPD's West Traffic Division.
Male officers also work undercover in surveillance cars to arrest women and transgendered men (TGs) who troll the streets looking for drive-by clients. Stings to arrest street walkers often involve an "endless cycle of cat and mouse," Pailet says, because suspects here are savvy about how undercover officers work.
With Pailet a few blocks away and listening to the operation on his two-way radio, officers maneuver their unmarked cars to get an arrest. The lead undercover unit slowly pulls along the curb with two or three uniform-driven surveillance cars circling on nearby streets, waiting to pounce.
After making contact with a street walker, the officer needs what's known as an act of furtherance to make an arrest. Legally this means the prostitute directs an officer to meet them at a different location, pay for a sex act or even enter the officer's vehicle. No cash needs to pass hands.
Officers can make an arrest that will be filed as loitering for prostitution if the prostitute plays "the word game" with two to three officers. Savvier prostitutes will often bait officers with "kiss me" or "touch me" gestures, because officer-initiated contact would be considered entrapment.
Even though law enforcement agencies prioritize prostitution differently, these officers believe in their work and often consider the crime an example of "broken windows" policing.
"If you address these little crimes, it prevents bigger crimes," said Officer Eric Helmstetter, who works Hollywood vice in plain clothes. "Hollywood is a fast-paced beat."
Earlier in the evening, Pailet meets with a group hoping to open a Cajun restaurant and serve hard alcohol. A nearby "restaurant" that hasn't served food in the year since it opened is still getting his goat, so he talks to the owner again. The refrigeration system isn't functional, but she tells Pailet the repairs are scheduled.
Pailet and Sgt. Steve Hwang (known as "the tip of the spear" due to his extensive knowledge of city ordinances) often find themselves negotiating with hopeful proprietors on operating conditions and chastising existing ones who aren't following the rules.
Because the heart of Hollywood is a dense cluster of restaurants, nightclubs, retail shops and multi-unit dwellings, the LAPD must often arbitrate disputes between proprietors and residents, invoking a second C.
Because the LAPD enforces liquor-service laws, officers can have their hands full with noisy "restaurants" that don't serve food and play music pulsating into apartment windows. The less above-board operators often open under a restaurant guise to gain a hard-liquor beverage permit with no intention of serving food. Opening as a restaurant allows more location choices, because club music can't be audible within 150 feet of housing units.
Pailet's unit reported a spike in arrests in 2009. The 2,277 he reported represented an approximately 40 percent increase from the prior year.
Hollywood Vice Arrest Report (2009)
Loitering for prostitution: 111
Lewd conduct: 82
Alcohol service (to minors and intoxicated): 127
Other alcohol-related (such as drinking in public): 990