Credit: Julia Terbrock

Around one in the morning on March 2, 2019, a Metropolitan Police Department officer arrived at the Washington Hilton hotel. He was there to see a 23-year-old woman he’d met through ListCrawler, a website that advertises “female escorts and call girls;” specifically, he was there to arrest her. Posing as a john in an undercover sting, he went up to the eighth floor and met his target in the hallway. Before they even got in the room, he had a request for her: “Let me see your ass.” She did what he asked, pulling down her pants and exposing herself.

She had a second woman with her, 22 years old, and he asked his target who she was. She responded it was her sister; they all went into a hotel room together. This is all according to the officer’s own account in a Gerstein affidavit (a document police file to explain why they arrested someone). The Gerstein says the older woman then told him, “Let me see your dick.” He unbuttoned his pants and pulled it out, and she grabbed his penis. The two of them then walked over to the bed, and the younger woman went into the bathroom.

Then the officer asked his target, “How much again?”

“You wanted an hour, right? It’s $300.”

“Yes, hour,” he replied, placing the money on the bed.

“Let me suck that dick,” she reportedly said.

He had something else in mind. “Why don’t you get on all fours and show me that pussy and ass.”

So she obliged. “You like that?” she asked him.

“I will pay an extra $100 if your friend joins us and licks your pussy,” he replied.

She called the younger woman over, and the officer asked her, “You’ll lick her pussy for $100?” She said, “Okay.” Then he signaled to his colleagues on the Human Trafficking Unit, and they stormed in, arresting both women. Prosecutors later dropped all the charges.

***

“It is overdue for D.C. to change how we address commercial sex in our city, and seek a new approach that focuses on human rights, health, and safety,” proclaimed At-Large Councilmember David Grosso at a hearing Thursday morning. Thursday’s was the first hearing on a bill Grosso co-introduced, which would decriminalize both selling and buying sex in the District. Police would no longer be able to arrest sex workers. (They could still arrest human traffickers.)

But MPD says they’ve been changing their tune recently. According to an MPD spokesperson, in 2019, the Department has changed its focus to buyers, arresting johns at a 5-to-1 ratio compared to sex workers. As MPDexplained to City Paper in June, “enforcement efforts have centered on ‘Johns’ and not sex workers…. Sex workers may be arrested in some cases, as this is still an illegal activity.”

However, a City Paper investigation has found that this year, arresting sex workers certainly hasn’t been an afterthought for MPD. Reviewing all the misdemeanors filed last month, City Paper found just a handful of people charged with solicitation of prostitution, and all of those cases were against johns. But earlier in the year, the picture was completely different. When City Paper reviewed every misdemeanor case filed in the first 10 weeks of 2019, we found 185 total solicitation charges. Almost all of them were the result of an undercover operation—that’s an average of more than 18 arrests a week resulting from resource-intensive, undercover prostitution stings.

And over 30 percent of those charged were sex workers.

These arrests aren’t typically made by beat cops. They came from one task force: the Human Trafficking Unit. (The Unit’s had a busy year. In the first 10 weeks of 2019, they charged almost as many people as they arrested in allof 2016.) But “Human Trafficking Unit” is perhaps a misnomer. According to a report by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, in 2016, only two percent of the Unit’s arrests were for human trafficking. In a year full of prostitution stings, they only made four trafficking arrests.

At Thursday’s hearing, describing his conversations with sex workers, Grosso said, “I’ve heard far too many stories of violence, including stabbings, beatings, shootings, rapes, and murder. All because the perpetrators think they can act with impunity against those in the sex trade.” “Worse,” he continued, “we hear of police refusing to help, blaming those in the sex trade for the violence they’ve suffered.” 

The many proponents of D.C.’s decriminalization bill say that violence is endemic in the sex trade, and that policing is the cause of the violence, not the solution. “Nefarious people look for the weakest link,” says Tamika Spellman, who is a policy and advocacy associate at the harm-reduction nonprofit HIPS and has been a sex worker by choice for more than 35 years. “And they know there’s a lack of concern for sex workers.” She analogizes the situation to mobsters killing people during Prohibition, or gun crime associated with marijuana—two industries that were very violent so long as they were illegal.

“The root cause [of violence] is not the sex worker. It’s the crime that surrounds the sex worker. I’m not a violent person, but I’ve had a lot of violence happen to me,” Spellman says. “People are going to do what they’re going to do. So we can try to at least make them safe when they’re doing it.”

Some of the violence comes from police officers themselves. Last November, FOX 5 DCreported that at least one D.C. officer and one P.G. County officer were under investigation after two sex workers accused the officers of coercing them to perform sexual acts, in exchange for not arresting them. Very similar police sexual assault scandals havehappenedperiodically in D.C. for decades. And in 2012, Officer Kenneth Furr wasconvicted of firing five shots at a transgender woman who refused to have sex with him for money.

But the problem goes beyond bad apples abusing their power to rape people while off-duty. To put it mildly, officers sometimes push the boundary between police work and criminal activity while they’re on the job, in the course of making an undercover arrest. City Paper interviewed seven local defense attorneys who have experience with solicitation cases.

  • Two attorneys said they’d had cases where the officer took his penis out before making the arrest. (These are separate from the March 2 arrest reported above.)

  • One attorney said that an officer later admitted to committing a DWI on his way to the sting, drinking whiskey while driving to get in the mood.

  • One attorney had a case where the officer had two women—both under 20 years old—undress completely, before he called in his teammates to arrest them.

  • One attorney said they’d had cases where officers began having sex with their clients, and then promptly arrested them.

MPD says they have rules of conduct for prostitution stings. City Paper asked if it violated their rules for an officer to take his penis out and have a sex worker touch it, or to ask a sex worker to take off their clothes. MPD responded, “MPD does not discuss tactics for undercover operations.”

When asked about allegations of officers having sex with defendants during stings, MPD said, “The Metropolitan Police Department maintains the highest standard of professionalism when conducting operations. We have policies and best practices that are followed in all operations.”

For many of the cases these attorneys described, the alleged misconduct did not make it into the police’s Gerstein affidavit. Nevertheless, the nearly 200 affidavits City Paper reviewed paint a revealing picture. Not every Gerstein contains the undercover officer’s name, but some do, and different undercovers appear to have their own style. Some will regularly just offer a woman $20 for “head” or $100 to “fuck,” and then call in the arrest squad when they say yes. 

But in the cases we reviewed, Detective Scott Pinto, for instance, consistently took the conversation further. Pinto is a middle-aged, experienced detective who’s been with the Department for over 17 years. But in early 2019, he was also doing some small-time work, at the center of a handful of stings arresting women Pinto met online. According to police affidavits, he asked one woman, “Can I cum on your tits?” He asked another if she “does fetishes,” then asked about “anal and titty fucking.” On Jan. 10, according to a Gerstein, he met a 22-year old woman at the Hilton, and watched her take off her shorts. He then said, “Damn, that’s a nice fat ass. You do anal?” before calling in his team to arrest her.

Pinto did not reply to City Paper’s request for comment.

***

While they fully acknowledge the harm of treating sex workers like criminals, many anti-trafficking organizations around the country and trafficking survivors have come out against D.C.’s decriminalization bill. Brad Myles—CEO of Polaris, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline—says that he fully supports decriminalizing the sale of sex, so that sex workers couldn’t be arrested, but nevertheless is “strongly opposed” to the bill. He says he’s concerned about other provisions, which would decriminalize “brothels,” “pimps,” and buying sex, all of which he says could benefit traffickers. (The bill would decriminalize pandering, i.e. “pimping,” if there was no coercion, force, or fraud involved—Myles says it’s often hard for law enforcement to tell, though.) He thinks that eliminating the threat of arrest would greatly increase the number of buyers in D.C., without a corresponding increase in the number of consensual sex workers. If that happens, he says, “traffickers will come to fill the demand.”

That said, he thinks policing of johns must be done through an “equity lens,” so that it doesn’t just result in “over-policing of communities of color.” “I’m most concerned about the egregious abuses of power when someone has high levels of wealth and privilege to buy access,” Myles explains. In addition to committing some of the worst abuses, he says “[the wealthy] are the ones driving the sex trade.”

All the defense attorneys City Paper spoke to felt that right now, the policing of buyers in D.C. is not happening the way Myles wants it to. “I feel like only certain people who are soliciting and only certain people who are buying are getting policed,” says attorney Rachel McCoy. “And if you make it to a certain income bracket, you’re really not.” McCoy identifies as Latina, and she says she works with a lot of Spanish-speaking clients, picked up in stings in areas with high Latinx populations. “These are oftentimes very vulnerable people who don’t have status,” she says. “Oftentimes, the solicitation is done in English, and they won’t always understand it.” She says a female undercover might offer sex for $20 to a man who has limited English, and “he’ll say in response, ‘Sex $20’, and they’ll arrest him.”

Several other attorneys tell City Paper they’ve had clients who speak little English and didn’t understand the interaction. Or even worse, they’ve had clients who were arrested for a conversation they say didn’t happen at all. “When you have one client tell you they didn’t really say it, you might be skeptical,” says attorney Joseph Scrofano. “But when you have a dozen cases, you start seeing a pattern.”

“In most cases, there is no recording,” Scrofano says. “So the undercover officer is the person who determines if the sting is successful. There are generally no outside eyes on it.” “The undercover officer is probably under pressure to make an arrest,” he adds, “because they’re putting so many resources into the sting.”

Multiple lawyers say they’ve had clients arrested for allegedly buying who were taxi drivers hailed by an undercover officer—in which case, by law, they must stop the cab—or Uber drivers trying to find their rider. One attorney tells City Paper they once had a client who was deaf, but the Gerstein made no mention of that, and made it seem as if the undercover had no trouble communicating with him.

Racial and economic disparities in policing also seriously impact sex workers. Grosso’s office got data for every single person who was sentenced between Jan. 1, 2017 and Sept. 30, 2019 for several sex work-related statutes. There were 238 sentences for solicitation (far more people were arrested for it). And there were just two sentences for “pandering” and one sentence for “procuring” (a similar crime). That was it. Zero were sentenced for operating brothels.

And 89 percent of those sentenced were black.

Most frequently, stings look something like this: An undercover officer goes to a gentrifying or lower-income neighborhood and offers a woman on the street some money for “head.” When women are in a tight spot financially, they may consider it even if they don’t generally (or ever) do sex work. “The women that I’ve represented aren’t looking for this,” McCoy says. “But they get approached, and someone offers them $20 to $50, and they could use the money. And they say, ‘Yes.’”

“In a time of economic struggle, when people are struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads … is that not the epitome of entrapment?” Spellman asks. “All I said was, ‘OK.’ I didn’t approach you. You came up to me and told me what you wanted and asked if I’d do it.”

“You’re wasting tax dollars to find out if you can criminalize someone,” she says. “And they could be directing that money to resources to help these people who need it.” Describing the raids, one defense attorney said, “The undercover will be doing the solicitation, and all the arresting officers will be waiting around the corner. What a waste of resources.”

Even in the best case scenario for the defendant—when the case just gets dismissed—the arrest is still on their record. And if they get convicted, that carries even more stigma and they’ll often spend time in jail. Furthermore, simply coming in contact with the criminal justice system can spiral into even more jail time.

For instance, according to a police Gerstein, on Jan. 31, an Officer Duckettmet a 21-year old woman at the Kimpton Rouge Hotel. He asked her to give him a hug, and they had a relatively long conversation. The affidavit says she unzipped her jacket “to show me more cleavage,” and Duckett said, “Oh that’s real nice. Take off your clothes, get comfortable. So I’m real into eating pussy.” A little while later, he asked her if she’d have anal sex, and she asked him if he had lube. “I got spit,” he responded. The Human Trafficking Unit arrested her shortly after. She failed to appear at a court hearing, and now has a warrant out against her. Failure to appear for a misdemeanor is a separate crime, with a 90 day mandatory minimum sentence in D.C.

It can create a vicious cycle. “A lot of these people doing survival sex work are already not in good positions, economically,” McCoy says. “Making it so they now have a criminal record, so they literally can’t get certain jobs and don’t have access to upward mobility—that just seems cruel to me.”

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