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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.”