Policing Prostitution in New York
A 2020 investigation by journalists at ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, revealed that New York Police Department (“NYPD”) vice operations routinely target the poor and people of color, do nothing to combat human trafficking, are conducted so sloppily that they rarely stand up in court when challenged, and are driven more by officers seeking overtime pay than any public safety concern.
Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, the stated goal of NYPD vice operations has been to target the “true criminals,” the “johns” and “pimps,” instead of going after the prostitutes themselves. These operations have resulted in the arrest of more than 3,000 people for trying to buy sex in the last four years, according to the data collected by ProPublica, but the validity of those arrests, and the police tactics for obtaining them, have been increasingly called into question.
The problem most often encountered with police methods is the lack of evidence beyond officer testimony, ProPublica reports. The undercover operations are rarely recorded, and many of those arrested deny ever agreeing to pay for sex. Jazmia Inserillo, a retired NYPD officer, confirmed that false arrests are often made in vice stings, including instances where men who were lost asked undercover officers for directions and men just flirting as they walked by.
Court records confirm these instances of false arrest.
ProPublica reports that “[s]ince 2014, the city has paid more than a million in taxpayer dollars” to at least 20 people who claimed they were falsely arrested in prostitution or “john” stings. Last year, it paid $150,000 to five young Latino men who said they were laughing off a proposition when they were arrested and $20,000 to a West African taxi driver who said in a sworn deposition that he was walking home when a woman asked if he’d walk down the block with her. He told ProPublica he thought she was afraid of walking alone, so he agreed. He was then arrested.
The NYPD focus on arresting johns has not stopped them from going after prostitutes as well. Over the last four years, 1,800 people have been charged with prostitution in the city. Paul Lichtbraun, a former NYPD vice captain, said his unit’s focus was mainly on johns, but the emphasis would shift when he worked high-end Manhattan hotels. When asked why he went after sex workers in that situation, he responded, “If I start arresting their paying customers, the hotel’s going to ask me to leave.”
Race and economic status clearly play a role in who the NYPD arrests in prostitution stings. Meredith Dank, a research professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, studied interviews with over 600 sex workers in the city and found that 65 percent of them said their main customers were White. Yet 93 percent of those arrested by NYPD over the last four years for trying to buy sex were not White. In addition, despite a comparable number of complaints about prostitution across neighborhoods of all races, police have arrested three times as many people in prostitution stings in Black and Latino areas. Retired NYPD officer Michele Alexander, a Black woman, questioned her supervisor about repeated stings in Black neighborhoods and was reassigned as a result.
The NYPD has a long and scandalous history with the sex trade. The 1972 Knapp Commission found bribes from brothel operators were endemic in the department. More recently, Ludwig Paz was sentenced to 12 years in prison for running a prostitution ring while he was a vice detective.
According to nearly every former vice officer ProPublica interviewed, the underlying problem in NYPD vice operations is two-fold. The first is that vice is seen as a police backwater, underfunded and staffed by washouts from other units. Retired vice Sergeant Stephen Antiuk said, “We’re considered bottom feeders.”
The second issue is the lure of overtime pay. Some officers supplement their income by as much as 30 percent through overtime pay, and that pay continues to pad their income in retirement. But overtime costs must be justified with arrests, and prostitution stings offer an easy path for return on investment. These abuses were at the center of NYPD’s response to calls to “Defund the Police” in the summer of 2020, but despite pledging to cut overtime by more than half, the city will still spend an estimated $600 million on overtime in fiscal year 2021.
NYPD’s operations have thus far failed to make an impact on sex trafficking in the city, despite the department’s claim to have increased arrests of “pimps” by 50% in 2019.
The focus on street prostitution and overtime draws resources away from more complex investigations and collaborations with federal anti-trafficking efforts.
Frustration with efforts to police the sex trade has led to calls for legalization, and there are currently multiple bills in the state legislature that would at least partially legalize the trade.
In the meantime, the tired ritual of officers impersonating prostitutes and customers will continue in New York.
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