Undercover police officers posing as prostitutes snared at least a dozen men Thursday night in a sting operation along Santa Rosa Avenue.

Officers dressed as streetwalkers at times backed up traffic in front of a Wendy's fast-food restaurant, arranging "dates" with passersby and directing them to a nearby hotel parking lot where they were arrested.

It was the first crackdown of its kind in about three years and was sparked by continued complaints from businesses and residents about the illegal activity.

"We're trying to do what we can to improve the quality of life for the neighbors," said Sgt. Clay Van Artsdalen, who organized the sweep. "Despite what some might think, it's not a victimless crime. It exploits women and tears families apart."

Santa Rosa Avenue, with its proliferation of inexpensive motels, has historically been the center of the city's prostitution.

The number of arrests in the area has held steady in recent years but police report seeing more prostitutes coming from cities as far away as Sacramento and Fresno to ply their trade.

"It's supply and demand," Van Artsdalen said. "We need to slow down both sides of the equation."

On Thursday, five undercover officers worked the street in pairs, waving and making eye contact with "johns" who talked to them through open car windows.

"Wanna date?" one decoy asked two men in a beat-up sedan.

Arrests came within minutes of deploying the first decoy — an officer dressed in jean short-shorts, a tight red top and sucking a pink lollipop.

"It's like moths to a flame," said Lt. Craig Schwartz, as he listened to his radio. "They're showing some real interest."

Suspects, including one man on a bicycle, were handcuffed and driven to a field command post where they were arrested on misdemeanor charges of solicitation for prostitution. Most were released on the spot with a notice to appear but some had their cars impounded because they did not have valid licenses.

None of the men would discuss their situation with The Press Democrat.

Santa Rosa Avenue has become so well known for prostitution that women walking the sidewalk are often solicited.

Schwartz said the trade is closely connected to drugs and trafficking. Police find teen runaways walking the streets and prostitutes are often victims of violence.

"We're looking to send a message to the johns and the prostitutes," Schwartz said. "And also to the community that we are taking their concerns seriously."