The NYPD significantly escalated tensions with advocates for sex workers on April 18 when a spokesperson said a letter from four local elected officials calling for an investigation into the department’s handling of sex work cases made “sweeping generalizations” that “blatantly mischaracterized” the department. The response from the NYPD, in turn, prompted some advocates to blast the department for itself running prostitution rings while resisting a potential probe.
The letter calling for the investigation, delivered on April 5 to city Department of Investigation (DOI) Commissioner Margaret Garnett and DOI Inspector General Philip K. Eure, said a DOI investigation of the Vice Squad is “both warranted and necessary” at a time “of decaying confidence in the police.”
Out gay City Councilmember Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, who chairs the powerful Committee on Oversight and Investigations, State Senator Jessica Ramos of Queens, and Assemblymembers Dan Quart of Manhattan and Ron Kim of Queens signed the letter charging that the NYPD Vice Squad “is a traditional hotbed of corruption. With vast institutional issues and contradictory directives, it’s a citywide department deserving of scrutiny.”
The pols questioned why the Vice Squad includes prostitution as part of its focus on fighting “victim-based crimes,” which includes human trafficking and Internet crimes against children, saying, “It’s both dangerous and offensive to conflate willing participation in the sex trade with human trafficking.”
The letter continued, “Further, how do those investigations fit with Internet crimes against children? Why are these crimes grouped together, and how do the Vice Squad’s investigations overlap with those in the Computer Crimes Squad?”
The politicians similarly expressed confusion over why the NYPD’s Narcotics Bureau has its own vice branch investigating “prostitution, gambling, massage parlors, untaxed cigarettes, and club-related issues.”
A Department of Investigation spokesperson acknowledged that the DOI received the letter, but declined comment on the possibility of an investigation.
The letter pointed to numerous recent cases of wrongdoing at the hands of city cops to justify the probe. A retired NYPD detective was charged last year with running a prostitution and gambling ring, while Yang Song, who told her family she was sexually assaulted by an undercover NYPD cop, died while vice officers were pursuing her in November of 2017. Her family told the criminal justice news site The Appeal that they were worried that her death “was a retaliation from the police and they forced her to die.”
The letter also noted that Michael Golden, an undercover cop, paid and had sex with sex workers whom his team later busted for prostitution.
“This behavior is nothing new — 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,” the letter said.
The letter coincides with a recent push to decriminalize sex work. An advocacy group known as DecrimNY has mounted a strong campaign to defend sex workers, while politicians at the state level have proposed legislation aimed at eradicating the overpolicing of the sex work industry. An increasing number of elected officials, including Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, have endorsed the decriminalization of sex work.
Yet, the NYPD is actively deriding calls for reform. In a statement provided to Gay City News, Sergeant Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, brushed off criticism of the Vice Squad, defending it for its work in targeting “the gangs and criminal enterprises that peddle in sex and human trafficking; prey on children; and victimize the vulnerable.”
“Sweeping generalizations do a real disserve to dedicated Vice cops,” McRorie said of the letter. “And they 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.”
The department’s tactic of shifting the focus away from consensual sex work to the department’s work on trafficking and child abuse represented one of the main concerns presented in the letter — that the department bunches the two issues together in the same breath.
The NYPD’s defensive response yielded pointed reactions from elected officials who signed the letter and advocates involved in the decriminalization movement. Nina Luo, a member of Decrim NY’s Steering Committee, called out the Vice Squad for hypocrisy and said it should be defunded.
“It is straight up laughable for Vice to claim moral high ground when they are the ones running the prostitution rings,” Luo told Gay City News. “Vice cops have immense power over sex workers, who are highly criminalized, and they abuse that power every day to harass, blackmail, and assault our community. They have the power to arrest or not to arrest, and they use that power to coerce sexual favors from undocumented women and trans women. That’s rape.”
Others also took issue with the NYPD’s resistance to calls for an investigation. Quart noted that safety in the city is dependent on full transparency from the police department — and a city agency shouldn’t be so resistant to a potential probe.
“This investigation is an effort to uphold the integrity of the NYPD, but their leadership wants to see it as an attack on all cops,” Quart said in a statement to Gay City News. “The facts speak for themselves — Vice has a history of targeting sex workers, making their work more dangerous, and in some cases, deadly.”
He continued, “If the Vice Squad is as structurally sound as NYPD leadership believes, they should have no problem with the DOI confirming that through an investigation.”
Audacia Ray, who is involved with DecrimNY and serves as the director of community organizing and public advocacy at the LGBTQ-focused New York City Anti-Violence Project, said the NYPD regularly violates the rights of queer folks and those who are trading sex — and must face accountability for its actions.
“We know our community is not served by Vice,” Ray said. “It’s a wholly obscured process. We need oversight, period.”
Ramos, who been especially active in the decriminalization movement since she unseated IDC-affiliated incumbent State Senator José Peralta last year, said there are reasons why a division like Vice is not effective.
“We know current policies aren’t working, and we know about past corruption,” she said. “It’s time the DOI clean house while my colleagues and I work to improve our laws.”
Torres and Kim did not respond to requests for comment on this story by press time.