Sin City

Sex Workers Come Clean About The Vice Squad

On a shadowy boulevard just west of the Holland Tunnel, Lily, a curvaceous, dark-skinned prostitute dressed in stiletto heels, hot pants, and a halter top, waits along with several other women for a client. Down the street comes a patrol car manned by a single policeman. The women scatter and run like thieves— all except Lily, who is already familiar with this cop, both personally and carnally. It's "officer role play," and she knows a little service will get her off the hook.

The drama unfolds as it has several times before. According to Lily, the cop escorts her into an alley, pretends to arrest her, cuffs her hands behind her back, and then offers her freedom in exchange for a blowjob. Lily's been run through the system too many times and knows to submit to the authority figure's will. Clearly, it's the easier way out— especially since she admits to rather fancying the policeman.

But this night, Officer Role Play is about to pull a fast one. After he gets what he wants, he breaks the bad news. "Honey, I have to take you in tonight."

Night patrol
Amy Arbus
Night patrol

Lily flips. "Oh, no, you don't. I'll tell every cop at the precinct what you've been doing with me."

"Go right ahead," the officer replies smugly. "It's a cop's word versus a hooker's. Who do you think they'll believe?" Lily contemplates her predicament, then continues hurling insults at the cop. Eventually she prevails. Lily and the officer have developed a relationship of sorts over time. His compulsive need to interact with her sexually is much stronger than his sense of duty to the department and the community. He sets her free.

And so it sometimes goes in nightly encounters between police and prostitutes. Rarely is the picture completely black or white or by-the-book. Hormones and attitudes rage. Greed rears its ugly head. And the results are not always within the guidelines of the law. Last week, two cops from the Midtown South precinct were indicted on charges of receiving cash and free services in exchange for protecting a 39th Street "fast house." More indictments are expected shortly.

As a writer who freelances for several sex publications, I've visited most of the whorehouses in New York and I've seen, firsthand, what goes on. Almost all of these places are weapon- and drug-free and conduct business with clients who are more than willing and anxious to exchange cash for sexual favors.

One evening I'm seated with five prostitutes at a kitchen table, shooting the breeze about the cat-and-mouse game the women play with the vice squad. The mayor is about law and order, the conversation goes, and he, even more than his predecessors, has no intention of tolerating the existence of brothels within his jurisdiction.

Suddenly, there's a jarring series of knocks from the hall door, an entrance that no trick is supposed to know about.

"Who is it?" demands the "phone girl," a post-op transsexual, whose job it is to schmooze prospective clients into paying a visit. The response is simply another assault on the hallway door. And then the words fill the air.

"Police! Open up!" The phone girl unlocks and opens the door calmly, hoping to keep a cap on the pandemonium that she knows is about to ensue. Six vice cops, armed not only with undrawn pistols but with a battering ram, sledgehammer, and crowbar, storm into the apartment. Chaos reigns. Some of the women look confused and scared. The cops shout at everyone present— "Who's the boss?" "Everybody stay calm!" "Get out of the bathroom!"— and in the surrealistic stream of events, I find myself pinned against a wall, assuming the position, being frisked by a cop from head to toe.

In this instance, the officers aren't looking for sex. It's cash they're after— and they're not subtle about it. "Girls! Where's the money?" the lead cop demands as he peers into open pocketbooks, fingering and widening the openings in an attempt to reach his goal. The interrogation continues with the officer getting more and more agitated as he realizes he may come away empty-handed. Apparently, the cop has met his match when he begins questioning a veteran (with 46 priors) who knows the score. She knows that if he finds the house money, it might be confiscated and gone forever. And she'll lie and deny her butt off. Anything to keep her money.

According to Francis Karam, a former Bronx assistant D.A. who now frequently represents sex workers in court, vice-squad procedure for brothel busts dictates that cops provide vouchers for all impounded property. But Karam says that while police complete vouchers for money and property taken, they almost never submit receipts to the women, which would allow them to recoup their property if the case is dismissed, or attempt to hold the vice squad accountable for exactly how much money has been taken.

And Karam says that even when vouchering is done properly, "the police department then forces the claimants to wade through a sea of bureaucracy too formidable for most people to navigate. Hence, with legal fees taken into consideration, it isn't even worth a defendant's while to pursue the matter unless she has lost literally thousands of dollars' worth of currency and property." Regardless of the disposition of the case, it is only rarely that the arrested parties receive their impounded property, judging from the responses of roughly 50 prostitutes questioned. (Only one, a downtown madam named Emerald, said the vice squad vouchered everything from telephones to money and returned everything intact after her case was dismissed.)

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