John School

person smoking across city building during nighttime
Photo by Маша Реймерс on

I used to be a prostitute.
Or more precisely, I used to be a prostitution decoy for the city of Buffalo back in the 1990s.
The crack epidemic had hit the city pretty hard in the early 90s and the overall quality of life was suffering. My bosses in the downtown district recognized that prostitution had become a huge problem: women were getting propositioned walking to the store; the prostitutes were openly standing on corners at all hours of the day and night. The women and men – we tend to forget or ignore that men are out there too – were all feeding their addictions to drugs and alcohol. I hate to use the word “all” but I never, in my 22 years as a police officer, met a street level hooker that was not addicted to something.
Community policing was a huge buzzword at the time and my bosses came up with a creative solution to try to curb prostitution in the neighborhoods without punishing the streetwalkers, and maybe getting them some help.
I was a twenty-five-year-old cop at the time when my supervisors asked me to go out on the street and see if anyone would proposition me. Understand that in Buffalo streetwalkers do not wear high heels and short skirts. I would put on an old tee shirt and dirty jeans, rub mascara and purple eye shadow under my eyes to make them look hollowed out, and tuck a half-smoked cigarette butt behind my ear. I’d just stand on a corner, it didn’t matter where, or what time of day it was, and in less than ten minutes I’d be getting propositioned. There was no “type” – the men were young and old, well-off and poor, and from every walk of life. Once I got the proposition, I’d give my backup the signal and the four cops in the two undercover cars watching me would swoop in and arrest the guy.
This is where it got creative. My backup officers would take the John down to headquarters, impound his vehicle and book him. He’d be given an appearance ticket and sent home to explain to his significant other what happened to his car. When it came time for court, most of the Johns were offered the same plea: fines and mandatory attendance at a “John School.” The school was a one-day class that included lectures from local health care professionals about the health risks they were putting themselves and their wives/girlfriends in. Former streetwalkers would come in and talk about the reality of the suffering and misery of their lives. Some of the money the Johns paid in fines went to programs to help prostitutes get off the streets.
I was proud to be a part of such an innovative solution to an age-old problem. Jail was not the answer for either the streetwalkers or the Johns. I got to see firsthand what life was like for these women and men, and how devastating and all-consuming the addiction is. I also found out that criminals treat hookers like part of the scenery. I saw drug deals go down, thefts, and car break-ins. All of those incidental arrests contributed to cleaning up the neighborhoods and taught me a valuable lesson that I took with me when I became a detective later on in my career: prostitutes are excellent sources of information. They became my go-to when I needed to know what people were saying or doing on the street. I treated them with the same respect and dignity as any other citizen, but I definitely treated them with more compassion after seeing the world through their eyes.
The John School was not invented in Buffalo. Our department had modeled the program after others being implemented around the country at the time. I don’t know if there are any still up and running. But for one long, hot summer in 1996, I got to see the world from street level, and I never looked at things the same way again

One thought on “John School

  1. Great post, Lissa! Do you know much about the “programs to help prostitutes get off the streets,” then and now? I’d be interested in learning more. If you have any thoughts or leads, I’d appreciate hearing, whether as a reply here or a private email (kate collier 14610 at gmail dot com) –kate, writing as c. t. collier


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