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Suit Filed by Strip Club Workers in Columbus Sheds Light on Troubled Vice Squad

The women, who were arrested alongside Stormy Daniels in July, allege that they were smeared by arresting officers, but they’re just the latest to raise concerns.

An activist confronting a Columbus police officer outside the governor’s mansion in Bexley, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, in April 2017.Katie Forbes

At the Sirens strip club in Columbus one night in July, a new lawsuit alleges, members of the Columbus Division of Police vice squad paid $75 each for “V.I.P. access” to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels. As the undercover officers downed $129 in alcoholic drinks, they commented on the bodies of their cocktail servers: “You have the tits,” one officer said to a cocktail waitress, “and she has the ass.”

The vice officers then made their way to the V.I.P. area for Daniels’s performance. Later, one would claim Daniels “put both hands on officers [sic] buttocks, both hands on officers [sic] breast, then put her breast in officers [sic] face” as cause for arresting her, along with two other women working at the club. While one of the officers sent around an email announcing they had Daniels in jail, the suit continues, another was busy shutting down his alleged pseudonymous Facebook account, deleting posts like “Cops for Trump Pence Make America Great Again.”

These allegations appear in a civil rights lawsuit filed this week against officers in the Columbus Division of Police (CPD) vice squad. In the suit, two women arrested that night at Sirens say officers falsified evidence and misled the public about the women’s alleged involvement in prostitution and human trafficking. The vice squad raid on Sirens was widely considered political payback for Daniels’s allegations that she had an affair with President Trump and was paid to cover it up.

Miranda Panda, a cocktail waitress, and Brittany Walters, a dancer, brought the suit against CPD vice officers. They say officers Shana Keckley, Whitney Lancaster, Mary Praither, Steven Rosser, along with one other unknown officer, arrested them without probable cause, an argument later supported by the city attorney, who said officers failed to allege necessary facts about the women’s conduct. After the arrests, their suit says, CPD “falsely insinuated” to the media that Panda and Walters were involved in “prostitution, human trafficking, or vice related violations.”

The suit comes at a critical time for the department. Since Sept. 6, vice unit operations have been put on “pause” as the department launched an internal review. Three weeks later, the department called in an FBI public corruption task force to investigate the unit, noting that “recent high profile incidents have brought forward a variety of allegations,” including Daniels’s arrest and the shooting of sex worker Donna Dalton by Officer Andrew Mitchell in August. At the time he shot and killed Dalton, Mitchell was under criminal investigation. He had also already made 80 prostitution-related arrests in 2018, overwhelmingly of women.

Columbus Police spokesperson Denise Alex-Bouzounis told The Appeal that the FBI investigation led the department to relieve Mitchell of duty, confiscating his badge and gun. FBI spokesperson Todd Lindgren confirmed to The Appeal that CPD has referred the investigation to them, but would not offer further information because “the matter is ongoing.”

The officers’ plans to target Sirens and Daniels, the suit claims, are evidenced in part by pro-Trump Facebook posts allegedly written by Officer Rosser, since deleted. (Rosser, in a previous incident, was found to have entrapped employees of a Columbus bar into serving alcohol to minors.) The suit cites internal emails, including a celebratory email from Officer Keckley, who forwarded the complaints related to the three arrests to a CPD lieutenant, with the comment “LT You’re Welcome!!!!! I work Vice now !! : D It was Me, Rosser, Lancaster, and Praiter [sic]; Please Please Don’t post my name on Face Book [sic] !! : D Thank me in person later.”

The women also allege that officers falsified their arrest reports so they could be charged with violating a law against touching strip club patrons while nude or seminude. Officer Keckley reported in a criminal complaint that Panda was nude or seminude, but in the suit, Panda says she wore “a large bra, which covered all of her nipples and most of her breasts; underwear; leggings; and a high-waisted skirt.” Officer Praither, the suit states, misrepresented her conduct with Walters, who was dancing when Praither reported Walters put her face between the officer’s breasts, because “it would have been physically impossible for Ms. Walters to bend down far enough” from the stage.

The women say in the suit that they were publicly shamed after CPD told the media that the arrests at Sirens were because of prostitution and human trafficking. Someone wrote “whore” on Panda’s door, and Walters was outed to her family, who did not know she was a dancer until news reports.

An FBI spokesperson would not comment on whether they were investigating these arrests, which dancers say have had a lasting impact on their lives. Alyson, a dancer who has worked at the club, told The Appeal that since the arrests, some dancers have left the club for fear of getting police citations. “You don’t know what you could get cited for, so it just kind of makes everyone nervous.”

The new allegations against the vice unit didn’t surprise Tynan Krakoff, a lead organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice Columbus. Krakoff said the lawsuit is “part of a larger pattern of police abuse and corruption,” noting that there were roughly two dozen active lawsuits as of late 2017 against CPD. “It’s not about individual ‘bad apples,’” Krakoff said.

Such incidents—the shooting of Donna Dalton, the arrests at Sirens—“have rightfully drawn scrutiny to our vice section,” Deputy Chief Timothy Becker said on Sept. 6 during the announcement of the internal review. Vice officers, he went on, investigate “salacious activities that are relatively minor in terms of criminal penalties, yet very cancerous to our communities,” which require officers who have made “good choices” to “associate with individuals who are making poor decisions.” Yet after the arrests at Sirens, Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein instructed police to cease such undercover enforcement of the “no touching” law. In the case of Daniels, Panda, and Walters, all charges were dropped.