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Abuse of Prostitutes in San Francisco
by Jeremy Hay
was a reporter for the now defunct Tenderloin Times. The names of
the prostitutes quoted in this article have been changed except for
where otherwise indicated. The article was originally published in
Gauntlet Magazine, Issue #7, Volume 1, 1994)
Mimi is a 19 year old prostitute who works on the streets of the Tenderloin,
one of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in San Francisco. She
reminds me of the cheerleaders I knew in High School-saucy, bright
eyes, her self-confidence tinged with an aggressive reluctance to
be hurt Recently, she described for me a common exchange between her
and the men in the cars.
"Oh, they ask me if I shave my pussy and stuff. How big my nipples
are, do they get hard, how deep I can take it."
And there it is, the answer to something I'd long wondered--what exactly
is it that police officers so jovially discuss with these girls while
they run their names through the computer.
It is a common sight, a cop pulls up and crooks his finger towards
one or more prostitutes on the sidewalk, keeps them there for five,
ten, fifteen minutes-and it represents only the most ordinary frontline
of the abuses that street prostitutes in particular are subjected
to by the boys in blue.
The question of police abuse is one that obviously resounds differently
in different communities. What would rank as cause for a lawsuit in
the eyes of a "legitimate" woman, barely qualifies as harassment in
the eyes of many 'illegitimate working girls. It is telling that Mimi
offered the above anecdote only after several interviews had already
plumbed the more notable incidents of abuse in her memory.
What is striking about many street prostitutes is that they often
regard even the more severe abuses they encounter at the hands of
the police as little more than hazards of the job. This is not because
these women lack a sense of justice. It is because, in the matter-of-fact
words of Donna Argenot, a black woman in her late twenties with a
gentle, thoughtful manner, "We can't do anything about it anyway.
They know who we are and where to come get us."
After the first reaction of, "I don't have time," the next response
of most every prostitute whom I approached for this article was, "Oh
sure, we talk to you and then the cops know exactly who we are and
where to find us.' A response which spotlights the ever-present fear
street prostitutes have, or simply the hard recognition, that their
lives and safety are in the hands of people who could easily hurt
them and do so under the cover of the law..
One has to ask, who has the most to lose by talking? A decent cop
like Jerry Golz, a 24 year veteran of the force currently serving
on the vice squad, who says,, "In my experience, I've never seen or
heard of it (police abuse) happening," or a street prostitute like
Mimi or Donna, or Patricia Randall, who tells of being beaten up by
the police while pregnant and who still works on the exposed street?
Exactly how pervasive and how severe is the abuse of street prostitutes
by San Francisco police officers? Reports vary; shaded on the one
end by the blanket denials of police spokesmen, and by the jaded outrage
of overburdened social workers and advocates on the other end. If
truth is found in moderation, and moderation is what is sought, one
has first to go to those who have the most both to lose and to gain,
the street prostitutes themselves. It is from them that the principle
impressions of this article are gleaned.
What is clear in interview after interview is that the treatment of
street prostitutes in San Francisco is better than in many other cities.
Equally clear, is that even in this "better" place street prostitutes,
always the most vulnerable of girls in "the life" are:
* frequently subjected to violent verbal abuse by police officers,
* victimized by and placed in increased physical danger through ineffective
* often asked to trade sexual favors in exchange for not being arrested,
* commonly fondled in the course of being arrested,
* occasionally beaten and hurt in the process of being arrested,
* repeatedly discriminated against and harassed within the process
of the criminal justice system,
* forced to understand that they have little or no recourse against
a police department and criminal justice system that perceives prostitutes
to be something less than fully human.
In the Autumn of 1992, Michelle Vuong, an Asian transsexual with an
incongruous and striking mane of blond hair was walking home when
she was picked up by a vice officer, who she remembers as a small,
almost petite white man with brown hair. Michelle usually works out
of a popular bar that is a hub of San Francisco's transgender nightlife,
but on the night in question she decided to take a car date. At first
it seemed like a fine idea. They chatted, he was a salesman, he thought
she was beautiful, he said he wasn't a cop. He asked if he could feel
between her legs and she let him. He let her feel his hard-on and
then, at her invitation, he put his mouth on her left breast and licked
Clearly it was time to complete the deal. Michelle suggested sixty
dollars for a blowjob and he agreed, handing over the money and unzipping
his pants. She had barely begun before he stopped her. "Give me back
the money and I'll pay more for the full thing," he asked. Great,
she thought, and handed the money back just in time for him express
his sorrow for having to arrest her.
The shadow world where vice arrests like Michelle's take place is
tailored to just such an ambiguous mixture of policework and abuse.
Lieutenant Gary Pisciotto, a 23 year veteran of the SFPD who headed
the Vice Squad before July, 1992, adamantly denies that such abuses
take place. At the same time he points to revisions in the law that
since the late 80's have permitted officers to engage in specific
suggestions-like asking for a blowjob-in order to produce evidence
of soliciting acts of prostitution. Combine this legalized entrapment
procedure with what Pisciotto says is a policy ruling by the San Francisco
District Attorney’s office that says, "if a girl puts an officer's
hand on her breast it counts as an act of furtherance," and the rules
of the game seem designed for the breaking.
Prostitutes, Public Defenders and a variety of prostitute-rights activists
have long questioned the roles that vice officers are asked to play.
Celia McGuinness of the Public Defender's Office comments that, "Vice
must be a morally corrupting job, being asked to act first as the
customer and then as the righteous law enforcer." Or, as Michelle
puts it, "He gets to touch me and then arrest me, it's not fair."
Asked about the conflicts inherent in a vice-officer's work, Lieutenant
Pisciotto responds, "Well that's his job, to ferret out prostitution,
and he's going to do that by using all the methods available to him."
There are two aspects of the Vice Squad that when taken together are
especially troubling. First, vice assignments are voluntary, beginning
inevitably with the desire of the officer to serve undercover. Second,
as even potential adversaries of the Police Department like Alison
Bernstein. a lawyer with the Public Defender's office, have noted,
"The vice cops aren't given the support that they need." Bernstein
is right in that no special training is provided beyond that which
is required of every other police officer. This is a startling lack
of preparation for work that involves a complex exchange or power
and extreme psychological convolutions. Rotation out of the vice squad
is left up to the vice-officer's discretion and desire. This optimistic
'hands-off vice" reproach of the SFPD is criticized by both prostitutes
and other interested professionals, leaving as it does the nature
of vice-work indistinct and open to considerable question.
Pisciotto meets questions about the nature of police-work with a good-humored
conviction in the professional and moral strength of his officers.
But when it comes to questions about police conduct, and charges of
abuse, his anger rises quickly and he hews to a firm, often contemptuous
line. "Accusations of police abuse are smokescreens thrown up by people
who want to change the prostitution laws." Pisciotto was in charge
of Management Control for five years, the police, unit which investigates
charges of police misconduct, and he asks, "Why would I protect a
bum" (who abused the authority of a police officer). He comments that
during his tenure at the MC unit, not one prostitute complaint against
a police officer came to his attention as a case requiring discipline.
As far as the possibility of abuse happening, he says simply. "If
a prostitute is abused by a police officer, then she should file a
This a comforting idea, but realistically, very few prostitutes would
ever consider such an action. The prevailing sentiment is that to
complain is to step inside the system and thereby, out of the rules
of the "game," a decision that invites even greater risk of harassment
and injury. Within the system the obstacles are perhaps best exemplified
by the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), an independent agency that
was created in 1983 as a means for civilian review of police conduct.
Carol Draizen is a diversion representative at San Francisco's Pre-trial
Diversion Project, a private non-profit which has a contract with
the courts to provide community service assignments to first-time
offenders. Draizen regularly works with prostitutes who complain of
harassment and abuse at the hands of police officers. She says of
OCC, "In terms of protecting the rights of the ordinary citizen against
police abuse it doesn't appear to function, and the way the system
is set up it certainly can't protect prostitutes. In the end it makes
them even more vulnerable."
Draizen's opinion is rooted in the fact that prostitutes wishing to
file complaints about vice-officer conduct are placed at an immediate
and potentially threatening disadvantage by an OCC policy that denies
equal access to evidence. The successful prosecution of Vice Squad
prostitution arrests depends upon tape recordings of the exchange
between cop and quarry. When complaints are filed these tapes become
evidence used by OCC investigators. However, according to OCC senior
Investigator, John Parker, who says he can't comment on the fairness
issue, "To protect the police officer's confidentiality, California
state law and the Police Officer's Bill of Rights allow only the police
department and the officer in question to review the evidentiary tapes."
Once Under A Blue Moon
Despite the odds, some prostitutes do take the risks and file complaints
of abuse against the police department.
Victoria Schneider is an ex-marine who served in Vietnam. Today she
is a tall. willowy post-op transsexual with a penchant for velvet
jumpsuits, and has been working as a prostitute in San Francisco for
the past three years. At about 2 a.m. on a September 18, 1993, she
was walking down Sutter Street when Vice officer Jordan Hom picked
her up in white four-wheel-drive vehicle. In the report she later
filed with OCC, Victoria says, "He stated he wanted a blowjob, and
offered to pay fifty bucks for it." She says today that, "I thought
he might be a cop, but I was curious, you know, so I went along with
him." She remained noncommittal and Hom drove on, saying he lived
nearby. Approaching what is called The Broadway Tunnel, Hom powerlocked
the car doors and told Victoria she was under arrest
At this point the reports fieed by Victoria and Hom diverge for an
elusive moment in time. Hom's arrest report reads:
"...I drove into the parking lot. At this time I ID'd myself as the
police and place him under arrest. Suspect was taken to Central Station,
and later booked by Officer M. Norrnan [at 850 Bryant]."
However, according to Victoria, after Id'ing himself as a cop, Jordan
Hom never pulled over but instead continued driving and at the same
time reached over and began to fondle first her breast and then her
genitals. Then he took her to Central Station for booking.
The complaint that Victoria Schneider filed included the account of
her arrest and also addressed issues of her treatment after arrest;
issues that many prostitutes and in particular transgender prostitutes
have confirmed as commonplace. Once booked she was transferred, as
are all arrestees, to the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street, an
imposing grey-stone building that houses the city's Municipal and
Superior courts, the District Attorney's Offices and the Police department's
There, despite her repeated statements that she was legally a female
with all the necessary documentation, and despite her requests for
a medical examiner verification, she was placed in the cell with the
male and transvestite prostitutes. Later, during processing she was
forced to remove her wig and boots, neither of which were returned
until her release from jail at 7:30 am. She was eventually examined
by a medical doctor, who verified her gender status, but shortly after
was again forced to strip by a guard while she was being held in the
day room. "I consider this to have been pure harassment," she says.
Prostitutes complain frequently that in the course of a jail visit
they are forced to undergo strip searches beyond what the law requires,
and there are unconfirmed but widespread reports that transgender
prostitutes in particular are subjected to cavity searches. The Sheriffs
Department will say only that normal procedure is to conduct one strip
search for drugs and potential weapons.
Victoria's report also makes note of verbal abuse to which she was
subjected. According to the complaint she filed, during booking she
was referred to frequently as "he-she-it," and made the target of
jokes about sex changes. Interestingly, there is some evidence or
this insensitivity provided by Officer Hom in the arrest report he
filed throughout which he refers to Victoria as a he. While in regards
to Hom's report a case can perhaps be made that there was room for
mistake, it is at best reflective of the callous disregard with which
many police officers treat transgender prostitutes.
Victoria Schneider registered her complaint with the OCC on October
1, 1993, and the case is still pending. Her citation for prostitution
was dismissed a month after her arrest. I showed Lieutenant Pisciotto
a copy of Victoria's complaint, which he dismissed as "nothing substantial,"
although adding that, "I would hope that he [Hom] didn't do this."
On Halloween night, 1993, Michelle Vuong was walking from her home
to a nearby bar. "I wasn't working," she says, "I was just going out
to see my friends." It was about 11:30 and while she was waiting for
a traffic light to change a police car pulled alongside and one of
the officers shouted at her, "No hooking."
Michelle said nothing in reply and began to cross the street. Apparently
this was the wrong response. The police car cruised beside her, the
same officer leaned from his window, "Faggot," he called, and then
they arrested her. In the course of the arrest, Michelle was pushed
against the wall and punched several times in the side and stomach
leaving bruises on her ribs, her breasts were scratched hard enough
to leave long welts that were visible two weeks after the incident,
the contents of her purse were scattered onto the ground and her hands
were cuffed behind her back.
Michelle was cited for jaywalking and taken to Northern Station for
booking, after which she was released. Immediately upon arriving home
her boyfriend Frank called Northern Station to register a furious
complaint only to find that the arresting officer was untraceable.
His signature was illegible, and according to Michelle and Frank,
the badge number which must be entered on each arrest ticket was found
to be one belonging to an officer long-retired from the Police Department
and perhaps even dead.
Subsequently, Lieutenant Mary Stasko, the desk officer at Northern
Station who handled the complaint, matched their description of the
officer to a face and in accordance with SFPD regulations filed a
complaint against that officer with the OCC. That complaint is still
pending. Lieutenant Staska would not reveal the officer's name or
correct badge number, and provided only cursory answers to questions
about the incident, saying only, "The allegations that were made did
not seem accidental." Stasko did though, offer a different interpretation
of the false badge number, saying, "When she, [Michelle] was here
she was very upset and she simply reversed two digits of the number.
There was no false badge number given." Because the ticket issued
Michelle has since been lost neither side of the story could be more
The Tuesday after Halloween Michelle and Frank filed their own complaint
with the OCC. Already though their complaint has fallen victim to
the fear that street prostitutes live with and to the ability of police
officers to act anonymously if they so choose. For all effective purposes,
the officers who assaulted Michelle do not exist; ghosts with their
backs to the law from the minute they reported a false badge number.
In order for Michelle to locate her attackers she would have to search
them out and identify them, an action so opposed to the common sense
dictum that rules her life as a transgender prostitute-stay away from
the cops--that she has decided to drop her complaint. As she says,
"It is too much trouble with him knowing where to find me and me not
knowing who is he."
A Shut Case?
In October, 1992, a street walker named Patricia Randall was involved
in an argument with a would be pimp on the corner of Ellis and Jones
Streets in the Tenderloin. It was a loud argument that evolved to
where the man hit Patricia with a lead pipe on the side of her head.
Neighbors apparently called the police and two Vice officers responded
just in time to arrest Patricia for prostitution.
The two officers, both white, drove her directly to The Hall of Justice,
where the Vice Squad's office is, and brought her upstairs for booking.
Patricia, who acknowledges that she had been drinking, reports that
during the elevator ride to the fifth floor one of the officers slapped
her as many as nine times. "I kept talking back to him cause he kept
slapping me," she says. On the fifth floor Patricia began to resist
more actively and the same officer began to kick her in the stomach
as she lay on the floor. "Five times he kicked me and I kept saying
that I was pregnant but he kept kicking," she remembers.
According to Patricia, Jordan Hom was present when the two officers
brought her through the office doors. "I gave him his first ho case,"
she says, "and I remember him saying something like, 'Hey, you guys
are messing up the wrong girl.'" Perhaps Hom's interceding made a
difference. In any event, she reports that she was told, 'If you don't
say anything about this we'll let you go." To which, in the manner
of one to whom being arrested is no particular trauma, but being beaten
is, she replied, "Fuck you."
Patricia says that upon being released the next day she went to the
OCC office to report the incident, and that after accepting her complaint
form, the OCC investigator on hand took photographs of the bruises
on her abdomen and face. She has yet to hear from OCC regarding her
complaint. She adds that she has seen the officers on the street since
that night and that they ignore her. In contrast to many of the other
prostitutes who were interviewed for this article, Patricia Randall
asked that her real name be used in the hopes that attention would
be focused on OCC, the police, and her case.