The NYPD vice unit was tasked to create a diversion system for people accused of prostitution that would help them leave “the life.” Instead, it failed to address real issues that lead to the practice, and in fact gave officers a financial incentive to arrest as many people as possible with its overtime policies, reports Stephen Engleberg in a column for ProPublica. In the process, it disproportionately targeted black and brown New Yorkers for arrest. Some 89 percent of the 1,800 people accused of prostitution in the last four years were nonwhite, as were 93 percent of the 3,000 “johns” charged with trying to buy sex. Law enforcement officials claimed that arrests could save women who had been trafficked into selling their bodies. But experts argued that investigations of sex trafficking operations were far more complex than charging an individual with prostitution and required time and resources the department seldom provided.
In addition, rather than being forced into prostitution by a pimp or human trafficker, interviews found that most were doing what they could in desperate circumstances to feed their families and avoid homelessness, circumstances that policing and diversion classes did little to solve. With little official oversight, accusations of undercover cops purportedly entrapping women and men into offering to sell sex were commonplace and the identities and tactics of officers involved in complaints were regularly kept secret.