Aug. 11, 2011— -- Once a quiet little neighborhood for raising families, Vallejo, Calif., has become overrun with crime and prostitution after budget cuts have reduced the city's police force by almost half. So a small team of residents are taking matters into their own hands.
A snapshot of the dire straits in which the Great Recession has placed many communities, prostitutes and pimps can be seen plying their tricks in broad daylight in the middle of the residential area of this San Francisco suburb.
Vallejo resident Kathy Beistel, a 48-year-old who works in the wine industry, said she has watched the city's crime rate rise and its reputation sink. One day, the problem landed on her doorstep.
"Kinda the catalyst…[there] was a pimp fight in front of [my] house," Beistel said. "At that moment I was just angry. That was like the final straw for a lot of us."
Beistel called the police to report the incident. But she learned there weren't enough officers to handle the problem. The city was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2008, creating a ripple effect of crime through the streets.
"We used to have 158 officers, we have 90 now," said Vallejo police Chief Robert Nichelini. "So you can see that's a pretty big cut."
Many believe the cutbacks are related to the influx of streetwalkers and pimps. But Beistel wasn't just going to stand by and watch it happen. So she and a few of her friends decided to take to the streets themselves. Known colloquially as the "ho patrol," Beistel's group calls themselves the Kentucky Street Watch Owls.
Armed with fluorescent vests, cell phones and note pads, the ladies snap photos and write down descriptions of people they suspect to be johns, hookers and pimps. They even go so far as to disrupt tricks by making their appearance known.
"We're out here walking around with a specific purpose: to make our streets better, to make our streets safer, to get the message out there, that what we see on a daily basis isn't going to be tolerated," said Pat MacKenzie, a member of the Watch Owls.
But sometimes confrontations between the Watch Owls and the prostitutes get dicey. One prostitute, who asked not to be named, told ABC News that she had already made $200 the night we spoke to her and wanted to make more that night. She added that other women on the street are not pleased with the Watch Owls' efforts.
"What I'm saying to you is that these people don't care about what's legal and what's not legal," she said. "These girls don't care and eventually someone is going to get hurt, and I guarantee you it's not going to be a prostitute."
She added that she would be happy to stop working the streets if she could find a legitimate job.
"I used to work at a hospital, as admitting," she said. "But it doesn't matter what job it is right now so long as it's good-paying."
Police Chief Robert Nichelini said the threat of danger is real.
"Our concern is if they go too far, try to get involved, try to detain people, try to get involved in what would be termed 'police work,' that there is that potential for injury," he said.
The Watch Owls reiterated that it's about safety and other community groups have also taken up the cause. They are given training on how to carry themselves, how to be good witnesses and how to keep themselves protected.
To date, there have been no violent confrontations. In fact, the Watch Owls said they have tried to connect hookers with social assistance programs.
And there are signs of progress. A playground once a hot spot for suspected pimps and prostitutes is now safe for children. Beistel says that no matter how bleak the situation may look, her Watch Owls will continue their patrol.
"People need to understand that one person can make a difference," she said. "So we'll continue our neighborhood watch and, you know, support each other and take care of our neighborhood."