Investigations: The Oldest Profession

My partner and I watched the girl walking toward us. She was dressed in a pair of red shorts, high heels and a loose top. A couple of years ago, she had been very attractive, but now she was down to about ninety pounds, and the heroin she had been shooting into her veins had taken its inevitable toll. Once streetwise and cautious, she was now blatantly approaching cars stopped at red lights and offering her services. Her street name was Angel, but we knew her as Mary Delaney. She was 18 years old, had two children and was a stone-cold junkie. She sold herself on the street to support her habit and feed her kids. Along with a host of sexually transmitted diseases, she also had HIV and was in constant pain from severe infections in her gums. The only time she wasn’t in pain was when she was high.

I was commander of the Vice and Narcotics Division in Hartford, Conn., back then. One of my sergeants and I were driving around the city because we had received numerous complaints from community groups about the “prostitution problem.” Usually members of our division concentrated on investigations involving the procurement and selling of narcotics and dangerous drugs, but when street-level prostitution got to the point that patrol couldn’t handle the volume, we turned our efforts to targeting prostitution for a few days. We were surprised when Angel approached our unmarked cruiser and leaned into the window, asking, “Are you guys looking for a date?” She was all skin and bones and it was obvious she was so high she couldn’t even recognize an unmarked police car with two cops who had arrested her several times in the past.

“Angel, do you notice anything unusual with this picture?” I said. She looked confused. “Maybe the police radio right here, or the spotlight next to the side window, or the shotgun mounted on the dashboard?”

“Oh, #$@*,” she said.

We ended up taking her to St. Francis Hospital. She was so sick it really made no sense to book her. We knew there was little the hospital could do for her and that as soon as we left, she would run. Similar to many social problems the police deal with, we didn’t have a clue how to help Mary, other than to get some food into her and hope a doctor could do what we couldn’t.

Prostitution is a dirty business, and we officers never felt like we were accomplishing much when we rounded up a bunch of streetwalkers. We only moved the problem from one street to another.

The Sting
Prostitution is generally defined as the “engagement or agreement to engage in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee”. Similar to many other crimes, most states have taken a graduated approach to the crime of prostitution. Simple prostitution or patronizing a prostitute is a misdemeanor; the crime escalates to a felony for promoting prostitution (pimping) by intimidation or force and/or receiving part of the proceeds for the services of a prostitute.

Arresting prostitutes like Angel only addresses half of the problem officers who are interested in combating street-level crime must also investigate and arrest the johns who solicit the prostitutes.

One effective way to do so is to plan and conduct a sting operation in which a female police officer wears a recording device and poses as a streetwalker. In my era, female police officers were few and far between, and it wasn’t always easy to find one to pose as a streetwalker. Every so often one of us would put on a wig; a lot of rouge and lipstick; pull on a pair of nylons; add some ballast to the chest area; and don a short skirt, high heels and a top to pose as a female prostitute.

Like any other police operation, a successful prostitution sting depends on proper planning and execution, even though it’s generally not complicated police work. But because there’s an element of danger for any covert operative posing as a prostitute, the safety of the officer posing as the prostitute should be stressed in pre-operational sessions.

The following are some rules and safety precautions that ensure the decoy officer’s safety:

  1. Under no circumstance should the decoy officer get into a vehicle with a suspect;
  2. A location should be chosen that will allow the decoy officer to be in view of other officers participating in the operation at all times;
  3. The decoy officer must be armed; and
  4. The decoy officer should establish verbal and mechanical signals when probable cause is established, such as switching their purse from the right shoulder to the left shoulder.

If the customer offers money for sexual conduct, the officer verbalizes or displays the code and an arrest is then affected. Typically, the officer merely advises the “john” to pull around the corner or directs the person to a specific location where other officers make the arrest.

What happens next varies from state to state and city to city. In many places, a misdemeanor summons is issued (similar to a traffic ticket) and the prostitute and/or customer is released after agreeing to appear in court on a pre-established date. In others states and cities, officers inform the customers of the risk of sexually transmitted diseases when issuing the summons. Still others go through a standard booking process and the names of customers are published in the newspaper as a deterrent.

Is This Entrapment?
Many researchers reporting on prostitution enforcement efforts make the error of stating that most prostitution arrests result from entrapment by the police. Some lawful police tactics do involve legal deception, but entrapment as an affirmative defense to prosecution is relatively rare. Entrapment is when the government (police) plants the idea of committing a crime in the defendant’s mind.

Example: A female police officer poses as streetwalker and pretends to be a consenting participant in the crime of prostitution. If a customer approaches the decoy and makes an illicit offer of money for sex, this is not entrapment because the decoy only provided the opportunity for the commission of a crime. The decoy officer did not plant the idea of committing the crime in the person’s mind, merely provided the opening for the person to do so. This is quite different than a decoy officer actively soliciting people to commit a crime by approaching males walking by her or in vehicles and offering sex for money. Depending on the exact circumstances, a court may rule the officer went too far by manufacturing the idea of the crime in the defendant’s mind. This idea of the police inducing a person to commit a crime was first adopted in a 1932 Supreme Court decision (Sorrells v. United States). In that case, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, writing for the majority stated, “a defendant not predisposed to commit a crime may claim entrapment as a defense if the idea for the crime was implanted by the police.”

The bottom line: Prostitution stings using a decoy can be a logistics nightmare. To do it correctly and safely takes a lot of officers and equipment. To avoid claims of entrapment, the decoy should be wired with tape-recording capabilities. This often requires another officer who is responsible for all facets of the operation involving tape recording and/or video recording.

A “chase car” with two officers (preferably in uniform and in a marked vehicle) should be ready if the customer speeds off. In my experience, these types of operations result in large numbers of people being arrested. Another police vehicle (separate from the chase car) should be available to effect arrests.

If those arrested are going to be physically booked, extra staff should be placed in the booking room. If a summons is going to be given as opposed to a physical arrest a location must be established for this purpose. Wants and warrants will produce people who have to be physically booked and arrangements need to be made in order to do this.

Street-level prostitution often has a direct effect on the quality of life of the people living in the area it’s taking place. I remember one father saying to me, “I can’t even send my kids out to play. The hookers attract all kinds of people who don’t live here, and I don’t want my kids exposed to what they’re doing.” As police officers, we recognize that arresting streetwalkers and their customers is like squeezing a balloon. When the heat (the squeeze) is on, prostitutes and their customers just move to another area. However, until more enlightened solutions to this age-old problem are found, it’s our duty to enforce the law.

Be safe out there.

End Notes
Alexander, P. “Prostitution: A Difficult Issue for Feminists.” 1987. In Delacounte F. and Alexander, P., Sex Work: Writing by Women in the Sex Industry. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

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