Raquel* was walking on 128th Street in East Harlem shortly before midnight on September 28, half-watching a YouTube video on her phone, when a man approached her on the sidewalk, startling her. “You’re so beautiful,” he said. And then: “Are you working?” Raquel gave him a quick no, then crossed the street to put some distance between herself and the stranger. He crossed the street, too, and propositioned her again: ‘You’re too beautiful not to be working. Are you working?”
The man’s third overture came a few minutes later, near the corner of Third Avenue, a frequent gathering place for transgender women in the neighborhood, where Raquel had stopped to chat with friends en route to meet her sister. He pressed her to know what $20 could “get” him. Frustrated, she told the man to leave her alone and walked away. “Next thing you know, I’m in handcuffs,” she recalled.
Raquel is a 23-year-old trans woman from the Bronx, who recently started studying for a bachelor’s degree in education at Borough of Manhattan Community College. That night, she says vice officers loaded her into an unmarked car. Raquel had never been arrested before, and it wasn’t until she arrived at the 25th Precinct on 119th Street that she learned she was being charged with prostitution, along with four other trans women arrested that night. A police report states that she agreed to perform oral sex.
“Me being trans, it’s like, I take pride in it,” Raquel recently told the Cut. “But it’s like, people always think of a trans woman: ‘You have to sell sex. That’s your dominant job.’ And that’s not what everybody does.”
These arrests occurred against the backdrop of an NYPD push announced in February 2017 to arrest fewer people on prostitution charges and focus vice resources on arresting men who buy and traffic sex. To accomplish this, the vice squad got 25 new officers, doubling in size.
The announcement won praise from anti-trafficking advocates, who view sex work as invariably exploitative. (According to federal law, trafficking entails the use of “force, fraud, or coercion” to compel another person to work.) Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, called the tactic a “big step toward combating this form of modern-day slavery.”
One year later, by the numbers, the NYPD is making progress toward its stated goal. There were 528 arrests for prostitution and a related loitering charge from February to mid-November 2017, a 45 percent drop compared to the same period in 2016 and a 74 percent drop since 2012, according to New York State Division of Criminal Justice arrest data. Arrests for patronizing a prostitute increased 17 percent between February and November, to 898. Arrests for sex trafficking, a felony, increased 22 percent with 27 total arrests.
But the continuous arrests of trans women highlight one major shortcoming of a plan that empowers the vice squad, advocates for trans rights argue. Trans women are often assumed to be sex workers, yet police officers don’t see them as victims worthy of protection; the stigma surrounding sex work is compounded by the stigma surrounding their gender identity. Efforts to protect and bolster trans rights have yet to affect the NYPD in any meaningful way.
Bianey Garcia, 27, is the LGBT Justice organizer for the immigrant-advocacy group Make the Road New York. She’s also a trans woman living and working in Jackson Heights, an immigrant neighborhood in Queens where trans activism has thrived alongside LGBTQ-owned businesses and queer-friendly clubs like Club Evolution and the Music Box. She advocates for dozens of trans women, primarily undocumented immigrants from Mexico between the ages of 20 and 40. There’s “still a lot of transphobia around here,” she told the Cut recently.
Walking down the street, Garcia said, police assume that “just because of the simple reason that you are trans, you are doing sex work.”
Officers with the New York Police Department’s Vice Enforcement Division swept two areas where trans women of color live, work, and socialize last year, according to Legal Aid Society attorneys, who handle most of the city’s prostitution cases: the intersection of Third Avenue and 128th Street near Harlem River Park, where Raquel was picked up, and Jackson Heights.
There were at least six such sweeps between June and November of last year, conducted primarily by vice, resulting in the arrests of at least 20 trans women on prostitution-related charges.
Jennifer,* a 27-year-old Latina trans woman from Queens, says she was picked up by an undercover officer while walking to a club around 3:30 a.m. on June 13. She was near the corner of 69th Street and 44th Avenue when a black car pulled up; thinking it was a livery cab, she got in. The driver then began asking her personal questions and “offered money in exchange for oral sex,” Jennifer told the Cut in Spanish through a translator. “My response was, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure that’s what you’re saying?’ Because I was just so surprised and confused.”
The driver, an undercover vice officer, then hit the brakes and Jennifer heard a siren. He quickly handcuffed her and ushered her into another unmarked car, then into a van with four other trans women. “I felt betrayed and I also felt like people were trying to make a fool out of me,” she said.
At the 115th Precinct on Northern Boulevard, after all five women had been booked, officers led them into the precinct lobby, where an NYPD officer allegedly began taking pictures of them with his cell phone. “He pushed us very roughly trying to take pictures of us and video of us,” Jennifer recalled. “And I think the most undignified thing is that there were other police officers there and the other police officers started to … laugh about what was going on.”
The women hadn’t yet been informed that they’d been charged with prostitution, according to their Legal Aid lawyer, Cate Carbonaro. The NYPD did not reply to multiple requests for comment on these allegations.
The percentage of New Yorkers charged with prostitution who are trans is impossible to know for sure. Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society say the NYPD often misgenders their trans clients, listing them as men. But the effects of these targeted sweeps go beyond the trans women arrested, reinforcing a gulf between police and community.
And that gulf is wide. According to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, between 2010 and 2015, 856 complaints filed by LGBTQ New Yorkers included allegations that officers used slurs including “faggot,” “queer,” “homo,” and “tranny.” The NYPD revised its patrol guide in 2012 to explicitly prohibit disrespectful remarks about gender expression — but a November 2017 report by the Department of Investigation found that between 2012 and 2016, officers at just six of the city’s 77 precincts received the mandatory training.
In 2016, journalist Melissa Gira Grant interviewed a trans woman from the Bronx named Tiffaney Grissom, who has been arrested numerous times for allegedly loitering for the purpose of prostitution. The Legal Aid Society recently filed a class-action lawsuit arguing that the charge is unconstitutional, since it gives police officers leeway to judge a person based on their clothing — a short skirt, say. “Whether you are ’ho-ing or not ’ho-ing, even if you look like you might be trans, you are going to jail,” Grissom said.
This winter, months after a man severely beat two trans women outside of a McDonald’s less than a mile from the Jackson Heights Make the Road office, Garcia, of Make the Road, says many trans women don’t trust the NYPD enough to report hate crimes — which are on the rise, in New York and nationwide.
“When I go to a local precinct to make a report they … say, you know, stupid things. Like ‘faggot,’ ‘you’re not a woman,’ things like that,” Garcia told the Cut. She’s conducted her own sensitivity training at the 115th Precinct, and is prioritizing similar training at the 110th Precinct in 2018. Still, she said, some trans women “don’t call 911 because they are afraid of being deported.”
“The NYPD does not target transgender persons for arrest,” NYPD spokeswoman Detective Kellyann Ort told the Cut in a statement. “Arrests are made based on community complaints pertaining to allegations of prostitution.”
The same anti-trafficking groups that applauded the NYPD’s decision to bolster vice last year find this admission troubling. “We called for forcewide training that would really make it clear that a paradigm shift is necessary,” said Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the legal center at Sanctuary for Families. “We don’t think anybody should be arrested for prostitution.”
Police declined to provide details on any specific community complaints for this story. However, Diane Collier, chair of Community Board 11 in East Harlem, told the Cut she is personally aware of prostitution complaints at the intersection where Raquel was arrested stretching back four years. “Unfortunately it creates an image that isn’t really East Harlem,” she said. “It’s like the red-light district in San Francisco without the red lights.”
In Jackson Heights, says Democratic state senator Jose Peralta, constituents often bring him videos of alleged prostitution activity and pictures of condoms on the street. “Roosevelt Avenue has a prostitution issue, but it’s not a transgender prostitution issue,” he said. While abuses of power are not unheard of, “When it comes to the police officers doing their job and eliminating the prostitution, we respect that.”
But pressure to “get the arrest” often motivates arrests without legal justification, according to Edwin Raymond, lead plaintiff in a 2015 lawsuit against City Hall and the NYPD. The suit argues that arrest quotas, which the NYPD denies exist, drive over-exuberant policing. Officers “try to find shortcuts,” he told the Cut. “Even circumventing the Constitution if needed.”
Leigh Latimer, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society, argues that minority trans women are particularly vulnerable to this kind of policing — both trans women who engage in sex work, and those, like Raquel and Jennifer, who are profiled as doing so. In practice, she said, the NYPD is “driving out people or activities that are unwanted by the broader community regardless of the First Amendment rights of the people being arrested.”
Tara Lyons, a researcher with the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia, agrees that trans women who do engage in sex work are easy targets. The same factors that make it difficult for a trans woman to hold a service or office job — racism, transphobia — affect trans women who engage in sex work outdoors. “There’s less freedom of movement,” Lyons said.
The same goes for socializing, according to Kate Mogulescu, assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School. “Many [trans] women have explained to me that even if they are not involved in sex work but are looking for people to date casually, there are certain places they know they can go safely to do that,” she said. The cruel irony, she added, is that “it’s those places that are policed.”
Raquel says she used to visit the East Harlem corner where she was arrested, for sisterhood: to commiserate with other trans women, and to pick up hair and makeup tips. Since her arrest, she told the Cut, “It’s very rare that I go.”
For Jennifer, life in Jackson Heights has become claustrophobic. She spoke to the Cut a month after her June arrest. “The area where I live … there are a lot of police cars,” she said. “And that’s why I precisely feel afraid of leaving my home.”
Last spring, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform suggested that prostitution shift to the civil code, along with turnstile jumping and low-level marijuana possession — part of a broader plan to decrease overall arrest rates, “eliminate the collateral consequences of an arrest,” and close Rikers Island over the next decade.
“I’m not there, is the honest truth,” Mayor de Blasio told me during a December interview, shortly after his reelection. In the same conversation, he praised his administration’s initiative to ramp up vice unit resources to combat human trafficking.
“What I feel strongly from the different discussions I’ve had with the NYPD, is they very much understand that the core of the matter now is, we have to disrupt trafficking, and we have to have a trust dynamic in order to do it,” de Blasio said. “Literally, we never should have been focused on the victims who were being trafficked, who were being exploited.”
But while vice officers pursue this mandate, advocates point out, they’re also conducting targeted prostitution sweeps.
Mogulescu, of Brooklyn Law School, remains pessimistic. “As we continue to chip away at [those] undeserving of arrest,” she predicted, “trans women will always fall in the criminalized and vilified category.”
* Some names have been changed.
This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.