Sin City

Sex Workers Come Clean About The Vice Squad

In order for a bust to be a "good one," the vice cop cannot get naked or engage in sex acts— a fact of which the girls are all too aware. Hence, policy within a whorehouse dictates that all clients "get comfortable," an industry euphemism for the act of disrobing before sex play begins. At Sally's house on the east side of Manhattan, every new client is greeted with a free, 10-second blowjob right at the front door. As one might expect, boys will be boys (whether they're in blue or not), and more than a few working girls tell tales about cops who have engaged in foreplay or even had full-out sex before making arrests. Again, that "cop's word versus a hooker's" works in the officer's favor.

Exactly what is the agenda of the police department with respect to controlling prostitution? Are they out to improve New Yorkers' quality of life? Are they trying to reform sex workers? Or are they simply on a monetary or sexual mission, looking to generate revenue for the city— or themselves— or at least get laid in the process?

"If the authorities really want to generate revenue, they'll go after drug lords, who often hold huge stashes of cash," says Robert Castelli, a professor of police procedure at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former state trooper for 22 years. "Controlling houses of prostitution is strictly a case of maintaining the quality of life for taxpaying New Yorkers. There just isn't enough money in busting brothels for anybody to reasonably expect that that's the unit's agenda."

Night patrol
Amy Arbus
Night patrol

Solicitation for prostitution is a misdemeanor. Generally speaking, sex workers are offered a plea bargain of disorderly conduct or loitering for prostitution, offenses that carry a penalty of a few days of community service (which usually means picking up trash in a city park) and required attendance at an AIDS education class, a course the average prostitute could teach, rather than attend as a student.

Despite repeated visits to 1 Police Plaza, NYPD officials would not comment on brothel busts, and would not discuss vice-squad procedure except with respect to vouchering. Detective David Burns, an NYPD spokesman, asserted that careful vouchering of all property impounded was routine procedure. Asked if the women receive a receipt from the vice squad, the officer answered, "Well . . . they're supposed to."

But if the NYPD was somewhat hesitant to discuss police procedure, sex workers themselves were eager to offer their opinions and experiences.

"Sometimes the cops are really nice," says April, a veteran of some 15 big whorehouse raids. "Like they'll let us hide our money in the house before we go to jail, and even get McDonald's on the way. But others. . . . Like once the cops actually took all our money, counted it up in front of us, split it, and then told us, 'This is your lucky day. You can all go home. We're not arresting you.' "

According to one of Manhattan's most blue-blooded madams, a lone vice cop arrived at her door apparently ready to arrest her employees. But to her surprise, his agenda was extortion, accepting cash in exchange for not pressing charges.

In another tale of crooked cops, a hooker named Suzie received a call from the cop who busted her, several hours after she got home from jail. The Caller ID indicated that the number was that of the precinct. The officer who had just made the bust was now asking her out on a date. Confused and scared about the overture, she contacted her lawyer, who recommended that she present the case to internal affairs. But eventually, intimidated and petrified that the officer might stalk her, Suzie says she decided not to pursue the issue.

Clearly, it's not just lawyers, doctors, politicians, stockbrokers, and construction workers who seek the services of New York's working girls. According to several sex workers, some of their best information about the inner workings of the vice squad comes from tricks who just happen to be police officers as well.

Maria, a striking Puerto Rican prostitute, recently entertained a policeman in her apartment. When she asked for ID and discovered that the trick was in fact a cop, she got angry, she says, took the guy's belt off, bound his hands behind his back (with his acquiescence, of course), and shouted, "Who's in charge now, motherfucker?" Did the officer enjoy his session? "I don't know," she says. "But his dick got hard and he paid."

Given that cops are only human, it's no surprise that they're subject to the same temptations as anyone else. And whether or not the individual testimony of each sex worker is completely credible, the body of evidence provided by a legion of sex workers indicates that the city needs to keep closer tabs on the vice unit.

Names of sex workers have been changed to protect their identities.

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