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."
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.)
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."
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.