Outrage Grows Over NYPD Stings Targeting Gays at Adult Businesses

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday February 3, 2009

Police in New York City are allegedly targeting gay men in video stores and other adult establishments for arrest under the charge of prostitution.

The arrests seem to follow a similar pattern time after time: a handsome young man chats up an (often older) gay man, suggests that the two leave the business in order to engage in consensual sex, and then, as the pair leaves the establishment, offers to pay for the encounter.

The comment about payment does not have to be acknowledged or agreed upon to in order for police waiting outside to seize the target and place him under arrest.

Article in publications such as the Gotham Gazette.com and Gay City News.com point out that the police department has then attempted to have such businesses shut down--citing the arrests they have made.

Caught in the middle are gay men who are often told by their legal counsel to plead guilty to disorderly conduct and avoid a trial, and possible conviction, for prostitution.

So many gay men have been arrested in this manner and charged with prostitution that it's not only the city's gay community who are seething; city and state officials, too, are beginning to ask questions, with Christine Quinn, the City Council Speaker, calling the police activity "false arrests" and saying that she's now looking to "get to the bottom" of it all, according to a Feb. 2 article at Gotham Gazette.com.

One victim of the sting operations is 52-year-old Robert Pinter, who shared his story at a January town hall meeting that convened at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center.

Pinter had shared his story last fall, as reported at EDGE in October.

The Gotham Gazette.com article reported that Pinter said at the town hall meeting that the undercover cop who allegedly came on to him at the Blue Door video shop last October was "charming and persistent, and we agreed to go home for consensual sex, but as we were leaving he said, 'I want to pay you $50 [for sexual services].'

"I didn't respond, but I thought it was strange," said Pinter.

Then a number of undercover police who were waiting outside hustled Pinter up against a wall. Because they did not identify themselves as police, Pinter said, "I thought I'd been set up by a gang."

Added Pinter, "I asked them why they were doing this to me. I was totally clueless.

"They handcuffed me and said, 'Why the fuck do you think we're arresting you--loitering for the purpose of prostitution.'"

Pinter said that he then spent several hours in a van before he was taken to police headquarters, where he spent another "16 or 17 hours," after which a Legal Aid lawyer "strongly suggested I plead guilty to disorderly conduct."

Pinter took that advice--and now wishes that he hadn't. Angered by his arrest and the outcome, he's started his own group to fight back, the Coalition to Stop the Arrests.

Said Pinter, "We have to hold the NYPD accountable and keep the pressure on" to ensure that gay men will no longer be the unwilling pawns in what may be a legal game to target and close adult oriented businesses under the city's so-called "nuisance abatement law," which provides grounds for the city to order the closure of businesses at which "criminal activity is demonstrated."

An Oct. 30, 2008 Gay City News.com article said that the Manhattan South Vice Enforcement Squad had made other arrests at the Blue Door video store during 2008, and have made similar arrests in at least one other shop since 2005.

At the start of 2008, Blue Door Video was the site of ten arrests for alleged prostitution; the shop closed temporarily last summer.

The article said that one aspect of the arrests was consistent across the board: the arrests took place after the undercover officer broached the subject of payment.

The article quoted Legal Aid senior staff attorney Russell Novack, who said that some of the arrests at Blue Door were of European men.

Said Novack, "I really don't think that European tourists are coming down to the Bowery to be prostitutes."

Added the lawyer, "The police send undercovers in there to solicit guys."

Said Legal Aid supervising attorney Linda Poust Lopez, "You really do have to walk away" in order not to get arrested and charged with prostitution in such a case.

"Say very clearly 'No, thank you' and walk away," Lopez advised.

That may well be better advice than pleading guilty to the lesser charge when threatened with a prostitution rap, as Pinter did. Several others didn't agree to that advice, but chose to fight, and now that fight is getting louder and more public.

But it's not a struggle that is without precedent. The Gotham Gazette.com article noted that in 2006 lawyer Michael Spiegel won a case against the Port Authority police for a series of false arrests against gay men in restrooms.

The Gotham Gazette.com linked the arrests with the so-called "nuisance abatement law" and the power that law gives the city to close establishments where ongoing crime can be shown as happening.

The article said that the number of such closures had skyrocketed in recent years--and in the case of establishments like The Unicorn and Blue Door, it's gay men, arrested and charged for prostitution, who provide the so-called "criminal activity."

Christine Quinn is not the only official calling the arrests into question. The article said that an out gay state Senator, Thomas Duane, had sought to contact the district attorney, only for his call to go unreturned.

At the town hall meeting, Duane showed that he understood the cost of the arrests, noting, "People's lives are being ruined."

Duane was also quoted in the Gay City News as saying, "I think it's very disturbing that there has been this pattern of arrests."

"This is harassment.

"No matter how you look at this issue, the enforcement is completely, utterly inappropriate and out of control."

Rosie Mendez, a City Council member, decried the police tactics for "targeting and criminalizing behavior that is legal" in a statement.

Added Mendez, "In this instance, they are targeting the sexual conduct of gay men.

"This type of targeting is simply the harassment of certain type of commercial ventures and of potential customers of legitimate businesses.

"This type of harassment infringes upon an individual's civil liberties."

And the Anti-Violence Project's Jennifer Ramirez said that police were now searching to make arrests through on-line hookups, using Craig's List.

"The cops go on the assumption that everyone's a sex worker," according to Ramirez, who added that in her role as an outreach worker, "When I'm out on the street doing education, I'm perceived as a sex worker and I'm criminalized [by the police]."

Sexuality is one factor, but race plays into it as well, according to Andrea Ritchie, who is with the Urban Justice Center's Sex Workers Project.

The article cited Ritchie as saying that Latinos and African Americans were more likely to be arrested for conduct that would be "winked at" when engaged in by straights.

The Gay City News item from Jan. 22 said that a handful of businesses seem to have been the main targets, with 52 arrests of gays for "prostitution" taking place at eight businesses since 2004 and last year alone seeing 27 known arrests take place at six businesses.

Of those eight businesses, the city has sought to close seven under the nuisance abatement law.

Said Lopez, "Generally, these are people who are not working as prostitutes and even when they are confronted by the undercover they may be intending to have sex, but not take any money."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.