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Queens DA releases final report on massage worker’s death, calling sex work ‘degrading and humiliating’

As anticipated, district attorney finds no misconduct in raid that led to Yang Song’s fatal fall.

The door to the room where Yang Song's final interaction with an NYPD officer took place. After her death, the door was secured with a cable lock and mourners left bouquets of flowers.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

Queens DA releases final report on massage worker’s death, calling sex work ‘degrading and humiliating’

As anticipated, district attorney finds no misconduct in raid that led to Yang Song’s fatal fall.

A redacted report released Thursday by the Queens district attorney’s office on the November 2017 death of Yang Song, a 38-year-old massage worker, confirms that prosecutors found no misconduct in her death. According to the report, which recommends that the case be closed, Yang Song “either intentionally leapt [or] accidently [sic] fell” from the fourth-floor apartment where she worked providing massage services while “attempting to flee apprehension by law enforcement officers, as a result of her unlawful conduct.”

The report and accompanying compilation of surveillance footage also provide a snapshot of what an NYPD vice operation looks like, and how the top Queens prosecutor understands sex work. “The death of Ms. Song is sad and tragic,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in a statement that accompanied the report’s release. “I have always maintained that prostitution is a degrading and humiliating industry.”

In the same statement, Brown praises his office’s participation in prostitution diversion programs, like the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court. “My office has long been at the forefront in helping those trapped in the sex industry find an escape through programs and assistance as an alternative to incarceration,” he said.

Yet Yang Song’s experience, as elaborated in the report, reveals the limitations of any approach that attempts to rescue sex workers by first arresting them. According to the report, Yang Song was nearly finished with a mandate from the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court—five counseling sessions at Restore NYC to resolve a September 2017 prostitution arrest—when the raid took place. She had one session remaining, scheduled for three days after her death.

Hai Song, Yang Song’s brother, was disappointed with the report. “The police are completely off the hook,” he told The Appeal. “As if they’re doing it [the operation] perfectly.”

The redacted report also confirms that Yang Song filed a complaint about a violent incident to the 109th Precinct in October 2016. She reported that a man presented himself as an undercover police officer and sexually assaulted her at gunpoint. A retired U.S. Marshal turned himself in that month, after the New York Police Department’s Police Impersonation Unit produced a wanted poster based on surveillance footage, the report states. He was released, however, after Yang Song selected a different man in a lineup. A subsequent DNA test found that the retired marshal “was not the source of the DNA in all samples” taken from Yang Song’s clothing. The case was closed in April 2017.

Yang Song’s family and former immigration attorney also told The Appeal last year that she had confided in them about being asked to become an NYPD informant, something else that led the family to believe she feared police. There is no mention of this in the redacted report.

The Queens Vice Enforcement Squad planned the Nov. 25 raid at Yang Song’s place of work in response to a civilian complaint on Nov. 15, according to the redacted report. The complainant alleged that “females were offering massages, but were selling intimacy” at the 40th Road location. Prostitution arrests have decreased in New York City since the police pledged to curb them in February 2017. Yet raids and sweeps in response to community complaints have continued, apparently at odds with the agency’s stated goal to build trust among vulnerable immigrants.

Though the police did not break protocol during the raid, according to Brown’s team of investigators, their activity apparently put Yang Song on high alert in the minutes leading up to her fatal fall. The report states that she brought an undercover officer into her apartment shortly before 7:30 p.m. When he exited the bathroom, she allegedly asked him “Are you a cop?” and he replied “No.” (The report cites audio collected from a one-way recording device the officer wore.) Video shows Yang Song opening the door for him to go out, and watching him walk down the stairs before closing the door.

The report also states that although she was alone when she either jumped or fell, Yang Song was aware of several police officers directly outside her bedroom door. At 7:25 p.m., a sergeant, a police officer, and two detectives entered the building, according to the report. They passed the undercover on his way downstairs and “knocked repeatedly” at Yang Song’s door, “stating in sum and substance: police, open up.” The DA’s report concluded that a detective’s “knocking on the subject apartment door while startling does not rise to the level of recklessness or neligence [sic].”

Concurrent video inside the apartment shows Yang Song pacing back and forth and staring at a live surveillance feed of the police in the hallway before moving out of the frame. Surveillance footage collected from a camera on the exterior of the building also shows what looks like a body falling through the air. A commotion ensues on the sidewalk, although the body lands outside the frame.

As part of the investigation into Yang Song’s death, the Queens DA pulled arrest data for the building in which she worked. According to the office’s records, there were 43 prior arrests made at the same address. The most recent, on Sept. 27, 2017, was of Yang Song.

This recent arrest may well have been front of mind for Yang Song in the moments before she fell, prosecutors acknowledge. The Appeal asked the district attorney’s office if it would continue to prosecute such cases, considering its conclusion that Yang Song’s death came after fleeing such an arrest.

“We cannot predict how anyone reacts to the prospect of being arrested on any charge,” Kim Livingston, a spokeswoman for the Queens County DA, said. “It is our job to enforce the law but we do so in these instances fairly and compassionately.”

Asked about the purpose of Brown’s comment about Yang Song’s “degrading and humiliating” profession, Livingston said it stood on its own. “There was no victim-blaming,” she told The Appeal.

Soon after the report and footage was released, Flushing residents and activists discussed it in a group chat created shortly after Yang Song’s death. Seeing her alone and panicked in the video was frightening, wrote Ms. H, a 52-year-old woman living in Flushing. She used to work as a phone operator for a massage business, so the video hit home.

“I’ve … heard many arrest [stories] before, the damage and PTSD for workers,” Ms. H said via a social messaging app. She questioned “why it’s a vice job” to police massage workers.

Yang Song knew she was about to be arrested again, Ms. H said. “Anyone would [be] scared at that moment. Would you?”

Additional reporting by Rong Xiaoqing.