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After Deadly Vice Sting, Advocates Say End to Prostitution Arrests Is Long Overdue

40th Road in Flushing, Queens, where a woman leapt to her death while fleeing NYPD Vice officers last Saturday.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

After Deadly Vice Sting, Advocates Say End to Prostitution Arrests Is Long Overdue

A 38-year-old woman, Yang Song of Queens, New York, died at New York Presbyterian Hospital on Sunday, one day after falling three stories from an apartment window in nearby Flushing. Little has been reported about Song beyond the New York Police Department’s assertion that she was a sex worker, and fell while officers from the Queens North Vice Enforcement Division attempted to arrest her.

The Saturday incident took place at approximately 7:30PM at 135–32 40th Road, inside an apartment above a ground-floor Cantonese restaurant and second floor massage parlor, King Spa. NYPD told The Appeal that Song was inside the apartment with an undercover officer who’d solicited a sex act as part of a broader vice investigation into the location. She pushed him out of the apartment, they said. The officer had already called for backup when police stationed outside on the sidewalk saw Song fall, sustaining head and body trauma. No arrests were made that night. The NYPD’s Force Investigation Division, assigned to deaths in custody, is currently investigating.

Song’s death comes seven months after the NYPD pledged to arrest fewer people on prostitution charges — part of a larger initiative to build trust, particularly in immigrant communities, even as President Trump’s immigration policy stokes fear of deportation. Song had been previously arrested in Queens on September 27, 2017. Her case was referred to the Queens human trafficking court, which handles prostitution-related cases. Her next court date was scheduled for December 1.

Scott Heins

“What went through our heads when we heard about what happened,” Leigh Latimer, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society who represents clients charged with prostitution, told The Appeal, “is that likely this individual had experienced some police contact before and was very fearful of contact with the NYPD.”

“The Asian community [in Flushing] is tight,” she added. “Feeling like the police are going to do whatever they think they have to [to] make an arrest, of course this is going to scare people.”

Susan Liu, associate director of women’s services at Garden of Hope, a Flushing-based nonprofit that provides shelter, translation services and immigration assistance to massage parlor workers, canvassed the street where Song fell on Monday with her colleagues. Liu says that many of her clients are Chinese immigrants in their 30s and 40s, with a language barrier and narrow job prospects. Some engage in sex work — under duress, Liu believes. Others are masseuses. Many fled domestic abuse or financial difficulties in their home country.

“There are people who we talked to on the street and they are saying they would rather jump than be arrested,” Liu told The Appeal. “It’s very sad to hear that. And among these women who work at massage parlors there are many who are trafficking victims… and I personally just don’t feel that it’s fair to criminalize victims.”

Over the past decade, the NYPD has made thousands of prostitution arrests. In 2014, there were more than 1,700. Raids on massage parlors also spiked in the years leading up to the NYPD’s February pledge to curb them.

“We saw a huge increase in arrests and operations going on in massage parlors in Queens between 2015 and the beginning of 2017,” Latimer said, adding that there have been many arrests for prostitution and unlicensed massage in the area around where Song fell.

Both New York 1 and the New York Post report that the Saturday arrest attempt was part of a massage parlor investigation, though police did not confirm this to The Appeal. A man who answered the phone at King Spa Wednesday declined to comment on the incident but said the business is limited to the second floor.

According to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society, arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700 percent between 2012 and 2016.

“And among these women who work at massage parlors there are many who are trafficking victims… and I personally just don’t feel that it’s fair to criminalize victims.”

In recent months, according to Latimer, prostitution-related arrests have declined. Legal Aid represents the majority of defendants in these cases in the city, and Latimer reports that they represented 25 individuals arrested on prostitution-related charges in February 2017. That’s a 50 percent drop from February 2016.

In March and April 2017, arrests declined again into the single digits. But in May, the arrests were back up, and again in June (the most recent data), when Legal Aid reported 19 prostitution-related arrests in Queens.

“Raids are a traumatic event… just mentally harmful,” Jenna Torres, a community organizer with the Red Umbrella Project, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of sex workers, told The Appeal. Unlike Liu, Torre argues that not all sex workers are trafficking victims. “Police are rough, and really treat supposed victims as criminals.”

Compounding that trauma is the fear of what might follow an arrest. The Queens District Attorney’s Office established its human trafficking intervention court back in 2010, where some prostitution-related cases are diverted, like Song’s was, and defendants are mandated to social services. The Urban Institute recently surveyed roughly 1,400 defendants, many of whom reported dissatisfaction with diversion. What the service providers offered, including counseling and immigration assistance, did not match with what most reported they need: employment, housing, education and healthcare.

President Trump’s immigration enforcement mandate has also raised the stakes related to such arrests. Since June, plainclothes Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have used the Queens trafficking court to identify individuals for immigration detention. One attempted detention made headlines, but four more defendants in the same Queens court were detained by ICE, according to Legal Aid.

Scott Heins

While the NYPD’s sanctuary city policy limits cooperation with ICE outside courtrooms, these federal agents can access the NYPD’s fingerprint database, which is fed by broken windows policing and prostitution arrests alike. For this reason, Legal Aid argues that decriminalizing the sex trade would make New York City safer for their clients.

Sanctuary for Families, an organization that provides court-mandated services, is strongly opposed to decriminalization. They have been major supporters of the NYPD’s new trust-building initiative, arguing that the NYPD can and should focus its resources on arresting pimps, sex workers’ customers, and traffickers while protecting women engaging in sex work.

Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, expressed dismay about Song’s death in a statement Monday, while doubling down on her group’s position that men who buy sex should be targeted by law enforcement.

“The tragic death of the woman who jumped from a third-floor window rather than face arrest on prostitution charges raises an important question,” she stated. “Why is the NYPD still targeting women in prostitution instead of the men who buy them?”

The Queens District Attorney and the Mayor’s Office refused to comment on Song’s death to In Justice Today, deferring to the NYPD. The NYPD also did not comment.

Meanwhile, “the ladies are still fearful of law enforcement, yes,” Liu, of Garden of Hope, said Tuesday. “I don’t know how to make them feel differently.”

“This tragedy should make everyone take seriously the impact of being criminalized and policed, whether because of engagement in sex work or immigration status”

Recently, Liu has been trying to introduce herself to massage parlor workers without the intermediary of the NYPD. This involves a lot of pavement pounding with volunteers. Building trust is slow going.

It’s “like a catch 22,” Liu said. “Without the [diversion] court many, many ladies would not find people to help them. But before they get help, they have to go through law enforcement — the arrest — and I just feel like that’s a big price to pay.”

“This tragedy should make everyone take seriously the impact of being criminalized and policed, whether because of engagement in sex work or immigration status,” added Kate D’Adamo, sex worker rights’ advocate and former policy advocate at Sex Workers’ Project in New York. “As long as criminalization and policing of the sex industry continues, the fear, isolation and vulnerability that policing fosters will thrive.”

For Victims of Corrupt Chicago Police, An Unusual Taste of Justice

Fifteen men had their tainted convictions vacated by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, but this isn’t the norm when it comes to prosecutors.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

For Victims of Corrupt Chicago Police, An Unusual Taste of Justice

Fifteen men had their tainted convictions vacated by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, but this isn’t the norm when it comes to prosecutors.

Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts had a pretty sweet deal going for himself. For years, he and other officers tasked with policing a housing project on the city’s South Side routinely demanded cash from drug dealers in exchange for protection from arrest, and framed residents of the housing project by planting drugs on them. His reign of extortion drew to a close when he and another officer were arrested in 2012. Watts served 22 months in prison after his sentencing, and is now a free man.

Yet for years, Chicago law enforcement leaders did nothing to heal the lives that Watts and his cohort tore apart with their abuse of power. Some of Watts’ victims went to jail or prison, serving sentences secured by illegally obtained evidence. Once they were released, they couldn’t find work thanks to their wrongful criminal records.

In mid-November, 15 of those men made headlines when Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx vacated their tainted drug convictions, all of which were tied to Watts and his cohort. The Conviction Integrity Unit in Foxx’s office determined that the convictions were based on false testimony and planted evidence — but only after Joshua Tepfer of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago petitioned a judge in September to clear their names. The vacated convictions have been described as a first-of-its-kind “mass exoneration” in Cook County by wrongful conviction experts.

“Everyone knew…if you’re not going to pay Watts, you’re going to jail,” 36-year-old Leonard Gipson, one of the 15 men, told reporters. “That’s just the way it was gonna go.” Gipson was convicted multiple times based on charges brought by Watts, and at one point spent two years in jail because of him.

Tepfer began representing men convicted on charges brought by Watts and his co-conspirators and investigating their cases when Foxx’s predecessor Anita Alvarez was still in office. When Foxx took office in 2016, Tepfer said her office cooperated with him as he pursued relief for people charged by Watts. By December 2016, three convictions tied to Watts had been vacated. During that petitioning process, Tepfer obtained a spreadsheet from the DA’s office identifying “at least 1000 arrests during an eight year period that led to at least 500 convictions” in which Watts and his fellow officers were involved. After realizing the breadth of the misconduct, Tepfer moved to have several cases consolidated this year — those of 15 men who had already served their time, but still had a conviction on their record. But Foxx’s office pushed back throughout October and early November, arguing that procedurally, each case should be handled separately. As Tepfer prepared for a hearing scheduled for Nov. 16, he assumed until the day before the argument that it would be dedicated to the litigation against the consolidation.

“They called me the morning before and said they’d be dismissing all [of the] convictions,” said Tepfer. “I didn’t think I was persuading them at all, but it appears that they concluded they couldn’t have faith in these convictions either.”

The media jumped to praise Foxx for vacating the illegally-obtained convictions. But the spotlight on Foxx illuminates just how rare it is for prosecutors to dismiss charges or vacate convictions premised on police officers’ fabricated testimony, corruption, or illegal behavior.

“It is extraordinarily uncommon what [Foxx’s office] did, and they should be applauded,” Tepfer told In Justice Today. “The reality though, is that it should be done all the time. When there’s intentional and systemic law enforcement misconduct across cases, you have to go back and look at all those cases.”

“As a prosecutor’s office, inasmuch as we fight for public safety, we also recognize that we have to right wrongs and be willing to do that,” Foxx told the Tribune following the exonerations.

Not everyone agreed with Foxx that the fight for public safety entails righting past wrongs. Police officers took Foxx’s exonerations as a challenge. The day after her office announced the convictions would be vacated, she was chastised in a public letter from Kevin Graham, president of Chicago’s police union, for “pander[ing] to the powerful anti-police movement in the city” and creating a “level of mistrust among police officers” that will discourage them from testifying. The letter could be read as a threat: without the testimony of officers, Foxx may struggle to secure future convictions.

But Graham’s letter fails to explain why vacating falsely obtained convictions would threaten law enforcement officers. If police and prosecutors’ goal is to protect and improve public safety, as is so often stated, then getting abusive police who frame innocent people off the street would seem to be in their interest. That the working relationship between DAs and police could be compromised by exonerating innocent people suggests that more is at play in Graham’s anger than the alleged quest for safety and justice.

Though Foxx’s actions are rare, she isn’t alone. A new generation of prosecutors shares Foxx’s commitment to vacating convictions or dropping charges based on police’s bad behavior. In July, 34 drug and gun charges were dismissed by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office after news surfaced that the charges relied on testimony from officers who allegedly planted drugs at a crime scene. In August, DA Gurbir Grewal of Bergen County, New Jersey dropped 8 cases brought against 17 defendants, all of whom were charged based on faulty, illegal police work. The same month, DA Kristen Barnebey of Aransas County, Texas made the surprising announcement that her office would no longer take cases brought by a local police department until its officers were better trained and educated, as In Justice Today’s Carimah Townes reported. These prosecutors appear to recognize that police misconduct isn’t just the police’s problem.

Tepfer of the Exoneration Project is investigating dozens of other casesinvolving the officers who worked with Watts, and WGNTV notes that as many as 7 other officers involved in their cases are still on the job. Foxx’s office has said it will continue to cooperate with Tepfer and review convictions based on charges from the indicted officers.

“These are not the only people this happened to,” said Tepfer. “These guys were working a decade with impunity. This is certainly not the end of it, and I’m working on bringing them more cases very, very soon.”

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As Incidents of Police Misconduct and Abuse Pile up Nationwide, Justice for their Victims Remains Fleeting

Officer Marco Becerra

As Incidents of Police Misconduct and Abuse Pile up Nationwide, Justice for their Victims Remains Fleeting

A staggering 1,094 people have been killed by American police so far in 2017. At the current pace, this will make 2017 the second deadliest year ever measured for police violence. As I’ve said many times here, and across the country, most Americans can’t name a single victim. Trump has all but sucked the wind out of the entire news cycle.

The State of Virginia could soon free over 200 inmates after a local newspaper investigated the state’s unfair application of its three-strikes law. Because of the way the law is currently being applied, hundreds of non-violent offenders are serving longer prison sentences than some convicted murderers.

Body camera policies across the country are failing. For police departments that actually took the step toget the cameras, many, including the Denver Police Department, allowofficers to use the footage from their cameras as “cheat sheets” as they write their reports. Because officers are allowed to see the footage before they write their reports, they have the opportunity to explain away what the footage may or may not have caught and create stories around the footage. A better policy would be to require officers to write their reports without access to the footage, then compare the two for accuracy.

It’s not enough to have body cameras — the policies governing them have to be progressive as well.

Activists and organizers in Austin, Texas, and around the country, are smartly targeting the police contracts in their city. Unbeknownst to everyday people, those contracts often go out of their way to protect even the bad apples in local police departments. Because, in most cases, the contracts only come up for renewal every four or five years, the opportunity for local activists to have a say in the negotiations doesn’t come around very often. This process needs to be open and transparent for all to see.

Very few police officers are ever held accountable for even the most egregious shootings and acts of violence. Over the course of this past week, that trend has continued in many cases where families and victims expressed genuine hope for justice.

A Dallas cop who was filmed wrongfully shooting a mentally ill man in the gut was sentenced to just two years of probation. The cop and his partner told multiple lies about the incident and should’ve received hard time.

Another Texas cop fired his gun through the wall of his apartment, critically injuring a sleeping neighbor. He admitted it, but was found not guilty of recklessly shooting a firearm. If the neighbor had accidentally shot the cop while he was sleeping you and I know the neighbor would be jail right now.

In both of those shootings the victims suffered from life-altering injuries, but the cops got off without serving even a day of jail time.

Minnesota, with the family of Philando Castile, is continuing the national trend of refusing to hold the cops accountable criminally while paying out enormous sums of money to those families on the back end.

All over the country police officers continue to be charged with horrific sex crimes. These are all from this past week alone:

A cop from Yuma, Arizona was arrested for raping a woman in San Diego.

A California cop who was charged with three felony counts of statutory rape just resigned. How was he not fired?

A Utah cop was arrested and charged with having sex with an underage boy.

A Connecticut cop was charged with sexually assaulting a juvenile inmate.

A Wisconsin cop was charged with sexual exploitation of a child.

A Hawaii cop was sentenced to jail for soliciting a prostitute.

Shaun King is a writer in residence with the Fair Punishment Project. He is a father, writer, humanitarian, political commentator and activist who lives in Brooklyn. He was previously Senior Justice Writer for the New York Daily News. The views and opinions expressed in this article are Shaun’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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