CLEARWATER — Salvatore Plateroti remembers a time when men would pull into the parking spaces outside his business on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
But they weren't there to shop at his Italian gourmet shop. Instead, Plateroti watched as prostitutes approached the cars and sat inside, the drivers then pulling away onto one of Clearwater's main thoroughfares.
"This was a pretty hot area" for prostitution, Plateroti recalled.
That was several years ago, but the problem hasn't gone away. Prostitution-related arrests have more than doubled in Clearwater in recent years: from 33 in 2011 to 71 in 2013.
Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway attributes the uptick in arrests to about half-a-dozen undercover operations completed last year.
"We're just becoming more aggressive with it," he said. "We're not going to tolerate that."
Officers conduct stings — posing as both prostitutes and "Johns" — when resident complaints arise, including reports of women lingering outside businesses and condoms scattered in residents' front yards.
"We also get complaints about guys driving in neighborhoods looping around and around," Holloway said. "Some neighbors will complain. Johns will stop in front of them assuming that they may be a prostitute."
Carl Schrader, Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition president, said residents will voice their concerns about prostitution to an area's police liaison officer.
Occasionally, police will tell residents when a sting is coming up. But sometimes, they don't, Schrader said, adding that a business owner once yelled at a supposed prostitute to get off his property. She was an undercover officer.
Prostitution, Schrader said, "keeps coming up. It's a chronic issue."
Prostitutes frequent the East Gateway area, which is east of downtown, and parts of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, where some motels, including the Budget Inn and Motel 21, are known hot spots, police said.
But cracking down on prostitution presents challenges. Some prostitutes have stopped walking the streets and instead are seeking clients through advertising websites such as backpage.com, making it harder for police to track them. Some officers have had to pose as clients on backpage.com to make arrests, Holloway said.
Police said they arrest the same 10 to 15 prostitutes over and over. They will be charged and booked into the jail, but return to the street once they're free, the chief said. That causes problems for undercover officers, who are now recognized by those they have recently arrested.
Several police units have had to get involved in prostitution stings, including the bike and vice units, to avoid being recognized by suspects. Largo and Clearwater police also trade officers during undercover stings.
Holloway said his department has talked to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office about the women who are repeatedly arrested for prostitution in Clearwater. Those addicted to drugs get help while they are incarcerated, but some end up back on the streets, the chief said.
Prostitution is not a "victimless crime," the chief said.
"It brings the area down, because a lot of people see these prostitutes walking down the street," he added. "It looks bad. It looks terrible."
Most prostitutes have drug addictions, Holloway said. Prostitution also attracts human trafficking, though Holloway said he had not heard of a prostitute in Clearwater who was a human trafficking victim.
Some Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard store owners said their businesses haven't been affected, but they continue to see women on the street.
When Marvin Espinoza opened his computer repair shop, ComputersTampaBay, about four months ago, he kept freshly brewed coffee and a cookie jar for his customers. The prostitutes soon started arriving every morning to munch on the cookies and coffee for breakfast, he said.
Feeling sympathy for them, Espinoza allowed it.
"A lot of them had no sleep, no food," he said. "Once or twice, I gave them money."
About a month ago, his brother removed the food. The prostitutes stopped coming.
From his Italian gourmet shop at 1621 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Plateroti said he sometimes sees prostitutes outside. He avoids eye contact.
"You do not want to draw attention to them," he said. "That would hurt my business big time."
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.