One summer night in 2015, two women on a street corner waved down a community college student driving home via East New York in Brooklyn. He figured they might need help, so he pulled over and cracked his window, but the pair had something else in mind. “Do you want to have some fun?” he recalled one of them saying. “Whoa, no thank you!” he responded and drove off, laughing to himself. It was like something he had just seen on TV.
The Black 21-year-old made it just a few blocks before the police pulled him out of his car and started to search him. Terrified and unsure of what was happening, he insisted they had the wrong guy. Officers screamed at him to “shut the f*ck up.” The women were undercover police officers. The man was then arrested for patronizing a prostitute. Officers put the man in a trunk where he remained handcuffed for hours, along with other black and brown men.
Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, it was one of the largest stings of the New York Police Department, the direct product of a plan he and top cops have touted in recent years to fight sex trafficking: officers should arrest “the true criminals” like “johns” and “pimps,” while making sure people forced into prostitution get the help they need to get out. On the ground, the reality has been different from the rhetoric.
Teams of NYPD officers’ have descended on minority communities, leaning into car windows and knocking on apartment doors, trying to get men and women to say the magic words: agreeing to trade sex for money. Such arrests are almost exclusively focused on policemen’s words, who say they are motivated to round up as many “bodies” as they can. Some of their targets were selling sex to survive; others were minding their own business.
Almost everyone arrested for these crimes in the last four years is nonwhite. According to a ProPublica data analysis: 89% of the 1,800 were charged with prostitution; 93% of the 3,000 were accused of trying to buy sex. Out of the hundreds of police, attorneys, and other experts consulted for this story by ProPublica. Not a single one thinks that the arrest statistics for patronizing a prostitute accurately reflect the racial composition of those in New York City who buy sex.
Meredith Dank, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who, along with her colleagues, interviewed more than 600 young people who trade in sex in the city, said, “I know for a fact that white men are the key demographic.” In one study, 65% said that their main clients are white.
People living paycheck to paycheck lost their jobs over crimes they swore never happened. But after facing multiple court hearings and the threat of jail time, many took deals to move on with their lives. A former officer who worked undercover told ProPublica that she participated in false arrests; others acknowledged the system could let them slip through.
The problems became clear in interviews with 36 current and former officers and dozens of defendants, prosecutors, and defense attorneys; weeks of observing court proceedings; and a review of hundreds of pages of sealed court records. After ProPublica delved into the work of one officer who was identified in official documents as Undercover 157, whose cases are replete with claims of false arrest and sexual assault that have never been heard in court.
Nearly three years ago, defense attorneys lodged complaints with the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, which they still consider an “ongoing matter.” In a statement, the NYPD defended the undercover officer as a veteran “with approximately 1,800 successful buys and no complaints against him at the NYPD or with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.” (The department later clarified this meant no active complaints.)
Even for a department accused of behaving with impunity in recent months, those overseeing the sex trade in New York seem to be working in an extreme vacuum of transparency. Originally formed to investigate police brutality against communities of color, the CCRB does not discuss false arrest claims and is also seeking jurisdiction to investigate those involving sexual harassment. The lawsuits are sometimes settled before officers have to testify in the few situations where defendants sue.
Since 2014, at least 20 people who claimed to have been wrongly arrested in prostitution or ‘john’ stings have been paid more than a million in taxpayer dollars by the county. It paid $150,000 last year to five young Latino men who said they were laughing at a proposal when they were arrested, and $20,000 to a taxi driver from West Africa who said in a sworn deposition that he was walking home when a woman asked if he would walk with her down the street. Hence, he agreed and was then arrested.
In his case, the undercover officer made 10 arrests in three and a half hours on the night that she met him, earning her four hours of overtime pay. Eighteen current and former officers who oversaw sex sales in New York City said they had been inspired by overtime for years. The hours add up to the precinct, the interrogation, and the paperwork. “You arrest 10 girls, now the whole team’s making eight hours of overtime,” said retired Sgt. Stephen Antiuk.
“That’s what it was all about, making money, from the lieutenant to the sergeant on down,” retired Detective John Kopack said. “You want to eat? You guys want to make some money tonight? Make some arrests do what you got to do.”
The NYPD did not address ProPublica’s specific questions about overtime or the particular events in this article. Sgt. Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokeswoman, said the department “maintains heightened vigilance and robust oversight over all of its undercover operations.” NYPD spokesman Al Baker said police changed their trafficking policy in 2017, leading to fewer arrests of sex workers, more “johns,” and a stronger emphasis on “pimps.” He noted that selling sex is still illegal, and the department “deploys officers where residents report a crime” without considering race or ethnicity. The NYPD continued to criticize its outsized presence in minority communities as the crime rate in New York City plummeted to historic lows in recent years, arresting tens of thousands of Black and Latino people on minor, nonviolent offenses.
The statistics for arrests involving the sale of sex reflect a particularly stark example of this trend.
Though prostitution allegations have long been spread through communities of all races, sex purchase arrests are not. ProPublica reported that police had detained more than three times as many suspected sex buyers in most Black and Latino areas than in white communities, amid similar reports of trafficking and alleged sex workers’ arrests in each.
Michele Alexander, who is Black, sometimes worked undercover out of a Jamaican precinct in Queens until she retired in 2012. “When are we going to Manhattan?” she recalls asking her supervisor, after working too many sex buyer stings where the men all looked the same. “Negroes aren’t the only ones who buy vagina.” Early the next day, as punishment, she said she was reassigned to a Manhattan subway station monitoring tour.
Paul Lichtbraun, a retired captain who oversaw vice in Manhattan and the Bronx until 2017, said his unit often concentrated on buyers. Still, they would only go after sex workers when complaints about prostitution were received inside high-end Manhattan hotels. “If I start arresting their paying customers, [the hotel’s] going to ask me to leave,” he said. “Are there always people who get off in this world? Of course, there are.”
Then in a majority-Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, there is the community college student, who has seen more customer arrests in recent years than all of Manhattan and Staten Island combined. He trekked to and from the court for seven months, refusing to take up a plea deal. Ultimately, the prosecutor dropped the charges.
The young man sued and won a $15,000 settlement for the false arrest. But something more fundamental was lost, his ability to trust.
“When I see people on the street, asking for a jump or whatever, I just keep going,” he told ProPublica. “Can you imagine if it was really two girls on the corner waving for help? You just lost one guy who would stop.”
Whether police target sex workers or their clients, operations look much the same. Field teams of anywhere from eight to 16 officers are dispatched to secure verbal agreements of sex for money.
They often start with community complaints called “kites.” When there are none to follow, there are “strolls” or “tracks,” dark stretches in industrial sections of East New York or along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens where sex is bought and sold. Massage parlors can be easy targets; it is not necessary to speak. The money lands on a table, there is a gesture, a subtle nod in return, in the motion of manual sex.
For this article, almost every officer interviewed said their job did nothing to minimize the amount of sex sold in New York City, improve the lives of those selling it or help find offenders who push individuals into it.
Low-level prostitution arrests can briefly mitigate neighborhood concerns about noise and public sex acts at best, But officers say that the trade will only reemerge elsewhere. Retired Detective Efrain Collado said, “If you’re always putting a team of 10 detectives and some bosses on a corner once a week, it’s just a waste of funds.”
Collado said he joined vice to obtain investigative experience and to have a positive influence. Still, after frequent assignments to arrest women outside three major homeless shelters near the Brooklyn North headquarters of the vice, he became disillusioned.
According to Collado, It felt like he was kicking desperate people when they were down. “It’s a waste of time,” Collado said. “A revolving door.”
Several current and former officers described vice within the department as a neglected stepchild. They said it attracts rookies looking to become detectives with only occasional attention from the top brass and minimal chances to prosecute traffickers, and holds washouts no one else wants.
Antiuk, a former sergeant, said, “We’re considered bottom feeders — put us in the backroom in the basement.” He added, “The morale goes to a point where it becomes how many arrests are we going to make and how much overtime are we going to get. You didn’t give a shit about some of these girls.”
Former Det. Ludwig Paz is spending up to 12 years in prison for operating a racket for prostitution spanning as many as eight locations. He hired several officers to help defend him, including his former vice partner. Last year, after he was implicated in the scheme, the former sergeant Failla was fired; he said he was an unwilling participant, passing Intel Paz to secure his operation.
It was the latest in a long line of NYPD and sex trafficking scandals. Officers have been caught exploiting or defending the trade about once or twice a decade since the 1972 Knapp Commission, which found that bribes were common in the department from brothel operators and other offenders and various locations provided half-priced sex to police in return for protection.
State legislators are discussing two competing measures aimed at ending prostitution arrests and the trouble that surrounds them.
“Full decriminalization” would eliminate criminal penalties for the purchase or sale of sex. Supporters argue that so long as the transactions occur between two consenting adults, sex for money is a victimless crime. They say regulations primarily affect poor people of color and only make life more dangerous for sex workers.
The “Equality Model” would keep penalties for buying sex in place but decriminalize its sale. Proponents believe that while sex workers should be treated as victims, not criminals, the government should still seek to eliminate sex trafficking, which they say can lead to rape and other abuses too easily. They argue that if it is legal to purchase sex, more men will do so, which would increase trafficking.
Under either policy, trafficking, sex with minors, and different coercion forms or promotions would remain illegal. In the New York Senate and Assembly committees, the full decriminalization bill is stuck. Lawmakers who support the “Equality Model” say that they plan to introduce counter legislation in the next year or so.
De Blasio has not taken a position on whether the law should be changed, but after the death of Layleen Polanco in 2019, he had to confront the problem.
Prostitution arrests began to decline in 2017 when New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill promised to shift resources toward traffickers and buyers.
“Make no mistake, this is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, but the NYPD will not allow it to fester,” he said, announcing the addition of 25 vice officers to “conduct initial screening in trafficking cases.”
But two vice officers at the time told ProPublica that the pledge belied how it was carried out. The department sent so-called white shields, its least qualified officers, who hold the lowest rank. The new additions went after sex workers and their clients, according to the two cops, not traffickers.
In the midst of a nationwide uproar about police brutality this year, the debate turned to budget reductions as a way to force change. Overtime pay, according to proponents and even some police, maybe a way to start cutting.
“When people are screaming, ‘Defund the police,’ I got no problems with that because they are wasting fucking money,” said Sgt. Steven Lee, who briefly worked as an interpreter during prostitution arrests and positioned himself as a whistleblower in a recent state Assembly race.
Established destinations for overtime pay are divisions that require several arrests, such as vice and drugs. “It’s called collars for dollars,” Failla said, invoking a phrase for a procedure that for decades has dogged the department. “The more bodies you put in the van, the more overtime there was.”
Many officers told ProPublica that their peers have come to rely on padded paychecks to sustain lifestyles they could not otherwise afford. On take-home pay, they can buy houses or vehicles that might shrink if they make fewer arrests.
Some squeeze out what they can from overtime because it affects pension payouts, mostly based on the years in which the most money was taken home. For the remainder of their lives, it will pay dividends.
In recent years the city has vowed to decrease police overtime costs and harassment, although data and records show little progress. By overtime, detectives can now easily add 30 percent to their pay. In addition to an annual base salary of $97,000, a typical third-grade detective makes about $35,000 a year in additional pay.
The city has budgeted over $600 million a year for overtime in the last three fiscal years. That figure was surpassed by at least $100 million a year by the department.
In an interview, one high-ranking NYPD official described overtime as an instrument used by supervisors under pressure to generate numbers to facilitate all kinds of arrests. “Take away overtime and show me how much loyalty you have left.”
Another said that this can deter officers from conducting more complex investigations in units such as vice, which could have more long-term effects. “They go for the low-hanging fruit. Easy collars,” he said. “That’s where they make their money.”
De Blasio and the City Council decided in June to slash the overtime budget by more than half as pressure grew to reduce police spending after demonstrations this spring. Even so, the Independent Budget Office of the City predicted that the NYPD will spend twice as much on overtime as it normally does in the fiscal year 2021, overshooting its budget by $400 million.