One might think the Salt Lake Police Department is cracking down on prostitution. One recent August evening, two women officers on special assignment arrested 14 men for soliciting sex in less than three hours.

But according to one Salt Lake police sergeant, 14 arrests is not uncommon.All of the arrests occurred between 1320 and 1750 South on State Street. Every one of the men approached the two officers and offered to pay them to perform some sort of sexual act. Although some of the men asked the officers if they were police, all of them agreed to follow the officers to their homes - in this case, a vacant lot where two other officers were waiting to arrest them.

Sgt. Jim Vaughn, who heads the group that keeps an eye on prostitution, pornography, gambling and liquor, said sending special assignment officers out on decoy operations is routine and is the most effective way of fighting Utah's rising prostitution rate.

Vaughn estimates that there are between 300 and 500 prostitutes on the Wasatch Front. Some work every day, some only once in a while.

Vaughn said as Salt Lake has assumed metropolitan status, its prostitution problem is proportionate to cities such as Seattle, Denver and Tacoma.

The reasons women are on the streets vary as much as their ages, Vaughn said. The women can be educated or uneducated, runaways or drug addicts. Some work for pimps, others are mothers trying to feed their children. Some are as young as 14; some as old as 40.

"The life of a prostitute is not a nice life. They physically deteriorate over time," Vaughn said. Prostitutes also face danger, disease and possibly jail, but the number of "working girls" in Salt Lake City keeps on rising.

From June 1987 to June 1988, Vaughn said 336 men were arrested for soliciting sex and 220 women were arrested for prostitution. The number of arrests vary, depending on the day, month and the amount of manpower the police force has to focus on prostitution. Most were arrested during routine decoy operations.

"We deal with the working girls on a daily basis. It's one of the four assigned bases we cover - prostitution, pornography, gambling, liquor," Vaughn said.

On occasion, the police will concentrate heavily on prostitution and make a bunch of arrests. "We do that as much as we can in all of our areas of responsibility," Vaughn said. Other days, the streets will be practically empty.

Vaughn said the police stagger the decoys to keep people "off balance."

"We cover the areas known to be heavily trafficked by working prostitutes," he said. Most areas tend to be around State Street, but Vaughn said they can spread out into the residential areas.

Surprisingly, most of the prostitutes in Salt Lake tend to work during the day. "We've done unbelievably at 10 a.m.," Vaughn said, referring to the number of arrests made. He said prostitutes don't like to deal with all of the cars and teenagers on State Street during the evenings.

During a routine decoy operation, undercover officers mingle in the streets and wait for men to solicit sex from them. Although it appears like a simple procedure, Vaughn said the special assignment officers undergo extensive training.

"The officers that work for us have had a rigorous background check. They are hired as special officers and have had special training."

There are certain rules the officers follow when making an arrest, and Vaughn said the officers abide by them scrupulously.

"We go much further than strict interpretation of the laws," he said.

The women write the reports immediately after the arrest takes place to eliminate the chance of error. At times, if necessary, they are electronically bugged. In addition, the arresting officers never lose sight of the undercover officers.

"They don't go into a situation and take the man right off the streets. They take them to a secluded place as to not give the themselves away," Vaughn said.

However, people are arrested on the streets if they are interfering with a special officer, like yelling to possible solicitors that the woman is a cop.

The majority of the 14 men arrested Aug. 4 for soliciting sex will receive Class B misdemeanor citations - the usual penalty unless there are mitigating circumstances like drugs or a weapon involved.

Although the penalties are light, Vaughn said the majority of people arrested for soliciting sex are rarely re-arrested for the same crime.

"We've arrested people from all facets of society. You catch flies with honey. You never know who'll stumble in," he said.

The prostitutes, however, are a different story.

Vaughn said one woman was arrested three times in one night by three different detectives.