Gothamist: Lawmakers Say NYPD Vice Squad Is A 'Hotbed Of Corruption' And Sexual Abuse

Police Commissioner James O'Neill in Queens on Monday, October 22, 2018. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Police Commissioner James O'Neill in Queens on Monday, October 22, 2018. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

By Caroline Lewis
Apr 19, 2019

A group of elected officials are demanding that the Department of Investigation look into allegations that NYPD Vice cops are assaulting sex workers.

“The NYPD Vice Squad is a traditional hotbed of corruption,” began a letter to the DOI and the NYPD’s Inspector General dated April 5th and signed by State Senator Jessica Ramos, City Councilman Ritchie Torres and State Assemblymembers Dan Quart and Ron Kim.

The letter alleges that “for decades, undercover police officers have solicited sex for a fee, took advantage of unsuspecting sex workers, engaged in sexual activity, and then radioed in their squad to make arrests.”

While the lawmakers pointed to three high profile incidents of abuse to help make their case, they asserted that “we are not dealing with one or two bad apples.”

“These recurring incidents point to not only a culture of corruption and misconduct, but a consistent exploitation, endangerment, and victimization of sex workers by the NYPD,” the letter states. “With vast institutional issues and contradictory directives, it’s a citywide department deserving of scrutiny.”

The letter credits the criminal defense attorneys at the Legal Aid Society with identifying this alleged trend of humiliation and abuse. Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project first made the call for an investigation into the Vice division in an op-ed in AM NY in October, saying their clients who are arrested for prostitution frequently report being taken advantage of by the police.

“Our clients describe undercover officers exposing themselves, as well as grabbing clients’ breasts and buttocks, showing them pornography, calling them after arrests, and forcing them to dance provocatively while removing clothing,” the lawyers wrote in the op-ed. “They also report being provided alcohol, and most disturbingly, having consensual and non-consensual sex with officers.”

The lawyers added that they and others in the field had reported misconduct to the Internal Affairs Bureau, the DAs, and Inspector Jim Klein, Commanding Officer of the Crime Prevention Bureau. “The NYPD has refused our requests for transparency about its ethical guidelines,” they wrote.

An NYPD spokeswoman came to the Vice division’s defense, saying in a statement that “sweeping generalizations do a real disservice to dedicated Vice cops.”

Part of what Legal Aid lawyers hope to uncover in an investigation is what is actually allowed when an officer goes undercover. “Can officers remove their clothes? Can they ask others to remove their clothes? Can they drink alcohol? Can they buy people drinks and give them alcohol?” Legal Aid attorney Abigail Swenstein told Gothamist, ticking off a list of unanswered questions.

“Paperwork often says our clients are ‘debriefed for human trafficking,’” Swenstein added. “What does that entail?"

“There’s a misconception that individuals who have been trafficked know to identify that they’ve been trafficked,” said Aya Tasaki, manager of advocacy and policy at Womankind, a service provider whose clients include people who have been arrested for prostitution and are mandated to receive counseling by the city’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts.

“It just takes so much trust-building for us to get to a place where a client or survivor actually says, ‘Yes, I have been trafficked,’” Tasaki said.

Sometimes the police conduct raids of illegal massage parlors with service providers in tow, but when the police are present, Tasaki said, “there’s no trust.”

Of course, some of that mistrust likely comes from the simple fact that prostitution is still illegal—even if those arrested are often able to get charges dismissed by going through diversion programs. In their letter, the politicians criticized the directive for the division, which lumps prostitution together with human trafficking and internet crimes against children as “victim-based crimes.” All of the letter’s authors support legislation in Albany to decriminalize sex work, but they also stressed that legislative changes “take time and will not fully address existing tensions between the police and the sex worker community.”

The NYPD said in its response that the authors of the letter “blatantly mischaracterize the successful work the NYPD does every day to forge deeper bonds of partnership with the communities we serve—while keeping crime in New York City at record low levels.” Some who are pushing for a probe into the Vice division are hopeful that it would help fill in the blanks about what happened to Yang Song, a sex worker who fell or jumped from the balcony of a Flushing massage parlor in late 2017 while being pursued by Vice officers. Family members say she talked about being pressured by police officers to become an informant and being assaulted by a man who said he was a law enforcement officer in the months leading up to her death.

"Yang Song's family returned to China last month, one-and-a-half years after Yang Song's death, with no answers,” said Nina Luo, an organizer with Vocal-NY and a member of the DecrimNY coalition to decriminalize sex work. “The NYPD never even gave her possessions back to the family. It begs the question, what are they hiding?” Assemblyman Quart also said he wants to know what the NYPD is doing to prevent similar cases in the future. “Since the death of Yang Song, what internal policies has the NYPD adopted to prevent Vice officers from harassing and exploiting sex workers?” he asked. Police officials have pointed out that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown already conducted his own investigation into Yang Song’s death and found no evidence of misconduct. The city’s Department of Investigation told the Daily News it doesn’t discuss whether it’s conducting a particular investigation. You can read the full letter below.