Police Abuse of
Prostitutes in San Francisco
A Case of Courage
In a case that goes very much against the grain, five prostitutes recently initiated and testified in a criminal case against Harvey Jue, an investigator with the California State Department of Consumer Affairs, and a former case investigator in the district attorney's office Family Support Bureau.
Each of the prostitutes separately identified Jue from photo line-ups as the man who assaulted them, and their testimony was the linchpin of the case, resulting in Jue's conviction on all counts. Jue had plead innocent to eleven criminal charges, ranging from oral copulation to anal penetration pention to unlawful imprisonment, all of which were charged as being carried out under the color of authority- or through the force of a badge.
Susan Eto, the District Attorney who prosecuted the case, said, "This is a big case. It is unusual for someone in the law to be prosecuted for anything, this is an unusual type of crime, and it's also highly unusual for victims like this to come forward." Jue faces anywhere from 18 to 48 years behind bars.
Why did any of the prostitutes come forward? Liza P. (the name she used as a witness) was one of the first to complain publicly, and says. "I am still afraid, but it was worth it to stop him from doing this to other girls.' She was assaulted by Jue in late April, 1993, just months after she began working the street. Liza testified that Jue had picked her up and driven her to a parking lot where he flashed his badge, showed her his gun, and demanded that she give him head without a condom or he would arrest her. Shortly afterwards, Liza and other prostitutes informed the owner of the bar they often work out of, who in turn called the SFPD.
In the course of his six-month investigation, Richard D. Adkins of the SFPD's Sex Crimes Detail, discovered that there had been numerous other assaults that had taken place "going back a couple of years", including one involving a 17-year-old girl. He suspects today that are many other victims who have either not come forward or simply eluded his investigation. Interestingly, Adkins hopes that the vigor with which he pursued the investigation, which he calls the "hardest case I've ever worked," and the successful conclusion, will highlight the SFPD's commitment to investigating reports of police abuses. He says, "In a case where there is a rumor involving a police officer nobody turns their back on it," adding that "maybe thirty or forty years ago it would have been swept under the rug."
Throughout, the awkward nature of this case has been highly apparent. Prior to trial, despite the absence of any gag order, neither DA Eto nor Inspector Adkins were willing to comment on any aspect of the case. Each acknowledged that the involvement of a police officer made it an especially delicate subject. And even after the verdict had been returned, Eto was reluctant to discuss the case at length, while Adkins refused to answer any questions without first meeting this reporter.
During the interview Adkins, who displays a rare sensitivity to prostitutes and their concerns, repeatedly emphasized where, in his eyes, the value of such a case lay. "If it will make clear that prostitutes are victims too, then that will be the most positive outcome."
Today, Liza and the others who testified, say that although their faith in the justice system has been strengthened, their fear of similar assault remains strong and ever-present. It is telling that although Jue remains imprisoned while he awaits sentencing, rumors that he is free on bail fly fast and furious among the girls on the street, and they speak and act with caution still when it comes to discussing Harvey Jue.
Down on the Law
The most common of police-abuses that prostitutes face, requests for sex in lieu of arrest and verbal abuse, are also perhaps the hardest to verify for purposes of complaint. "Blow me and I won't take you in," is an offer that many prostitutes recount having heard and also having turned down. It seems predicated on the assumption that prostitutes don't care who they have sex with and that they will do anything to avoid arrest. In fact most experienced street prostitutes are resigned to fact that they will be arrested over and over again, and sometimes for questionable charges. What they object to most are the fear and indignities heaped upon them by bad officers who step beyond the line of normal procedure.
Veronique Sabando is a transsexual prostitute, who according to her sister is supporting three children through school in Asia. In the summer of 1993 she reports being picked up by a uniformed officer who told her that he was taking her in for prostitution. After handcuffing her and placing her in the back seat of the squad car he drove a few blocks and parked on a poorly-lit block Turning to her with what she remembers as a gentle smile, he said, "If you make me happy, you know, use your mouth on me, I'll forget picking you up."
To Veronique, the choice was simple. She says, "I was scared so I did it."
She has never seen the officer again and continues to work the same streets.
For others, the decision is different, but the fear is the same. Mimi Williams reports an almost identical proposition.
"We were getting close to the station [850 Bryant] and he turned around and said if I gave him head he'd let me go." Mimi chose the arrest, and says, "I was freaked out so I just didn't say anything."
Many of the prostitutes I interviewed for this article reported similar incidents, and the majority of them felt that they were at least half-serious propositions. "Oh they always say stuff like that" said Suzanne Hong, a part-time prostitute, "But you never know whether they're serious or not."
Although most prostitutes who reported such incidents also reported turning them down, the fact that the offers are made with some regularity indicts what prostitutes and their defenders consider a hypocritical and precarious relationship between prostitutes, police and the law. The possibility of such a choice is always present for an arrested prostitute, while the results of either accepting or declining the offer are always in doubt. Arrested for breaking the law, prostitutes are offered a payoff for continuing their own "crimes," and for becoming complicit in police officers abuse of their authority. Public Defender Alison Bernstein has said, "I think that anybody working in the criminal justice system is leading two lives," and the stories of many prostitutes would seem to bear her out.
Sticks And Stones
Perhaps most frequent of police abuses is the violent verbal kind which Mimi described earlier. It is an ever-present feature of police contact with street-prostitutes and it is what most of the streetwalkers find most upsetting.
"I don't mind them doing their job," says Donna Argenot, "but there's no need to call me a bitch and a slut while you're doing it."
In each story of abuse researched for this article the common denominator was descriptions of verbal abuse delivered as casually as a cold is caught. It seems to have become almost a given part of police procedure. "Come here bitch;" "You sluts better move on;" "Hey faggot move along;" "That's some big ass you got;" are all insults that prostitutes tell of receiving, and which I have overheard.
Comparing San Francisco with many other cities, Donna says, "The verbal stuff is worse here than lots of other places," and adds, "I don't know why, it's just part of what they do." Suzanne agrees, and like Mimi. considers the remarks about prostitute's bodies to be the most common and offensive. "They're always asking me about my tits, or saying how big they are or how ugly they are, anything to upset you."
Critics say that the verbal abuse of prostitutes is due to a Police Department culture that dehumanizes prostitutes. An official in the probation department who asked to remain anonymous, says, 'Rookie cops start out treating the hookers with normal respect, but it doesn't take long for them to see that they can treat them like shit and get away with it." Celia McGuinness of the Public Defender's Office believes it to be a system-wide problem, and says, "Prostitutes get absolutely no respect in the criminal justice system." She adds, "I've been in courtrooms where lawyers with prostitutes as clients will make jokes about hookers and everybody will laugh along."
Carol Leigh, a prostitute, artist and activist in the Bay Area, believes that stopping verbal abuse should be a priority on the prostitute-rights agenda "Making clear that verbal abuse is intolerable, and convincing the police to institute an effective policy of sensitivity training would be an incredibly important step forward for us and the Police Department," she says.
That verbal abuse stems from a malignant police culture is a theory that seems supported by the remarks of prostitutes. Donna echoes the sentiments of many streetwalkers when she says that, "The girls are even worse than the guys," she says, an observation which suggests that "rounding up the whores" is a police activity that appeals across gender lines.
Making Whores Run
The sight of prostitutes running pell-mell down the street away from an encroaching paddy-wagon summons smiles to otherwise decent people's faces. It is a sight that we should all be ashamed to witness, and yet is one encouraged by the law. In San Francisco it is the sorry result of the application of the nuisance law statute, Penal Code Section 372. The statute permits the use of what critics call sweeps, and what police spokesmen call a response to a public nuisance.
The use of the 120 year old state nuisance law has drawn particular criticism as an example of police intimidation that unjustly targets prostitutes. Enforcement of the statute began in earnest in July, 1992, as a response to increased resident complaints about prostitute activity. The broadly worded code makes it a misdemeanor to maintain or fail to remove a public nuisance, which is generally defined as anything that "interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life."
The statute was struck down by Judge Herbert Donaldson just two months after police began using it seriously. Donaldson ruled then that it was unconstitutionally vague on its face and gave the police too much discretion to selectively arrest women who appear to be prostitutes. Recently, after the San Francisco District Attorney's Office appealed. Donaldson's ruling was tossed out by a superior court appellate panel. Police department spokespersons say that they have begun using the law again to make arrests. Prostitutes confirm this and say that police have told them that it is planned for a steady six months.
Deputy Public Defender Kimiko Burton has said that the use of the law amounts to blatant intimidation of prostitutes." Prostitutes themselves testify that the law makes their lives more difficult and more dangerous.
Larissa James, who also works in the Tenderloin says, "Mostly the girls watch out for each other but now we've got to always be moving and it's harder to catch when someone goes with a date." Other prostitutes agree that "freaks," or violent-minded customers, are harder to guard against now that the nuisance law makes it more difficult to work in self-protective groups.
Prostitutes like Erin Marsh, who is other wise a staunch and friendly supporter of the police, say that the enforcement of the nuisance law has led to illegal arrests and dubious police actions. She says, "When they began it [before Judge Donaldson ruled 372 unconstitutional] they were picking us up all over the place and writing up the ticket to say we were all on the same comer so they could charge us under the public nuisance law. It gives them license to do anything." On one occasion, she says, "I was picked up on my way to the grocery store. I wasn't even working, they just knew who I was."
The sweeping of off-duty prostitutes during sweeps is reported as a fairly frequent event. Cindy Chang is a prostitute, who in September, 1993, chose to perform AIDS outreach as an approved diversion assignment. She says that on a Friday night in early October, she was picked up along with two other prostitutes on charges of gesturing, an offense that is covered under the 372 statute. According to Cindy, the officers, a combination of uniformed and vice officers, ignored her protests that she wasn't working and arrested her. She says that in the course of her arrest an Officer Clemenson, badge number 1261, threatened to "flatten her nose" if she didn't stop complaining. Although she was booked for resisting arrest the case was later dropped, leaving Cindy with a lost night, battered morale and a few bruises to show for a night of outreach.
The case for indiscriminate abuse of the nuisance law is emphatically made by Dominic Perez, tan outreach worker with an AIDS organization that is funded to target Asian Pacific Islanders and transgendered people. Perez, who notes that sweeps occur most frequently around elections and other highly publicized gala-type events like San Francisco's annual Black and White Ball, says, "I was picked up and arrested while distributing condoms. The police didn't care or listen that I was involved in outreach, they just saw me as being with a group of prostitutes." He adds, "In effect what they're doing is preventing us from doing the AIDS outreach and prevention services that the Federal government funds us to do."
Prostitutes also confirm reports by Perez and other social workers that police sweeps often involve loading prostitutes into paddy-wagons and simply driving them around the block a few times before dropping them off. Donna and Larissa say that it is common fm them to be picked up in the Tenderloin and dropped off eight or so blocks away on Market Street, an area well known for its unpredictable and dangerous street scene.
Police officers like Lieutenant Pisciotto say that the nuisance law is a potent and effective way of responding to resident complaints in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, where groups of prostitutes often gather on one corner while groups of drug dealers gather opposite. Pisciotto insists that use of the law is about maintaining the quality of life for law-abiding citizens. His point is well taken in the sense that large groups of dealers have become threatening and unwelcome parts of daily life for too many inner-city residents. In practice however it seems certain that the primary target of nuisance law arrests are prostitutes. While SFPD statistics were not available at the time of this article, firsthand observations and anecdotal reports point to fluctuations in prostitute activity and visibility, but little or no change in the level of drug-dealing and related activities to which the 372 statute is applicable.
Much remains murky about prostitution-prostitutes, especially women, are perhaps the most reviled and exalted among us--but one fact is unarguably clear: prostitutes, and especially street prostitutes, are appallingly vulnerable to abuse. While personal debates about prostitution continue, and commissions meet to study the issues and argue reforms, street prostitutes continue to be abused and endangered by both ordinary citizens and the police.
The ability of "bad" police officers to abuse and hurt street prostitutes is enhanced by a police department and criminal justice system that in practice treats prostitutes not as individuals, but as a morally bankrupt and civil-rights-less class of whores. This culture of scorn contaminates even those police officers who think or act otherwise towards prostitutes, and impedes the ability of good police-officers to make r