Vice Among Vice Cops
When the solution is worse than the problem.
WaPo (“Police crackdowns on illicit massage businesses pose harms to the women they aim to help“):
Police descended on three massage businesses along a stretch of Georgia highway, part of what they described was a broader campaign against the illicit sex industry in Coweta County. An investigator said the goal had been to root out “human trafficking and child exploitation.”
While authorities said they found no evidence of human trafficking at the three spas, undercover officers engaged in sex acts with some of their workers, then arrested them, according to police reports and county court records describing the June 2019 raids that The Washington Post obtained through a public records request. In one encounter, a sheriff’s deputy repeatedly grabbed a woman while she masturbated him, the documents say, while another undercover officer paid $200 and received oral sex.
Police charged eight female spa workers with prostitution, according to local media outlets, which posted photos of their mug shots on the evening news.
In their efforts to rein in illicit massage businesses across the country, police sometimes rely on sting operations in which undercover officers engage in sex acts with spa workers, according to law enforcement experts and police records reviewed by The Post. While such tactics are generally permitted by law, policymakers are beginning to propose new limits on physical contact by police, which they say serves to dehumanize — and potentially traumatize — the very women the raids are purportedly meant to help. The spa owners and operators targeted by law enforcement, experts said, often go unpunished.
The incidents in Coweta County “stand out as both egregious and probably fairly typical,” said Erin Albright, an anti-trafficking expert who trains law enforcement agents on how to reform their policies to better support victims.
“I do not believe for a second that whatever the state’s interest might be justifies investigators getting naked and having the worker engage in physical contact of any sort,” she said.
Toby Nix, an investigator for the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email that it is not agency policy or practice to take part “in any illegal or immoral activity.” However, in some circumstances, he said, “a serious attempt to engage in criminal activity must take place before an arrest can be made.” He declined to answer questions about the agency’s policies regarding physical contact in police operations, whether any officers violated those policies or if any trafficking charges were filed.
It is unclear exactly how often police engage in sex acts during these operations because no organization tracks them. In two recent examples, Department of Homeland Security agents allegedly engaged in sex acts with suspected trafficking victims in Arizona and a private investigator in Horry County, S.C., working on behalf of local officials, engaged in sexual encounters as part of an undercover investigation into massage businesses, according to media reports.
Such incidents are probably much more common than reported, said Shea Rhodes, co-founder of Villanova University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, because “the very people who would report it are the most vulnerable,” she said.
Paige Hughes, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of DHS, said the conduct of a “limited number” of agents in the Arizona case “was not consistent with” the agency’s policy and had been referred to its office of professional responsibility for action.
A significant percentage of these officers are objectively bad human beings, abusing their authority and enjoying their power over these women. But the nature of these laws and the requirement to prove their elements makes enforcement via sting operations problematic on their face.
The assumption contained in the WaPo headline, that the purpose of these laws is to protect sex workers, is almost certainly false. While there has been an increased effort to clamp down on human trafficking,* we’ve had anti-prostitution laws since time immemorial. There are good reasons for that since it’s inherently exploitative and ripe for abuse, but it ultimately comes down to a sense that it’s demeaning to women and harmful to society as a whole.
It’s hard to see how sending cops in to partake in the exploitation and then humiliate the women by arresting them and plastering their images in the media does anything to correct the problem.
*I’m required to take annual “training” on the issue for reasons that remain unclear.