One summer night in 2015, a community college student was driving home through East New York in Brooklyn when two women on a street corner waved for him to stop.
He thought they might need help, so he pulled over and cracked his window. But the pair had something else in mind. “Do you want to have some fun?” he recalled one of them saying. “Whoa, no thank you!” he responded, and drove off, laughing to himself. It was like something he’d seen only on TV.
The 21-year-old, who is Black, made it a few blocks before police yanked him out of his car and began to search him. Terrified and unsure of what was happening, he insisted they had the wrong guy. Officers yelled at him to “shut the fuck up.”
The women were undercover police officers. He was under arrest for patronizing a prostitute. The police put him in a van, where he sat handcuffed for hours as it filled with other Black and brown men.
It was one of the New York Police Department’s biggest stings since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, the direct outcome of a strategy he and top cops have touted in recent years to combat human trafficking: Officers should arrest “the true criminals” like “johns” and “pimps,” while making sure people forced into prostitution get the help they need to get out.
On the ground, the reality has been different from the rhetoric. Teams of NYPD officers have descended on minority neighborhoods, leaning into car windows and knocking on apartment doors, trying to get men and women to say the magic words: agreeing to exchange sex for money. These arrests are based almost entirely on the word of cops, who say they are incentivized to round up as many “bodies” as they can.
Some of their targets were selling sex to survive; others were minding their own business. Almost everyone arrested for these crimes in the last four years is nonwhite, a ProPublica data analysis shows: 89% of the 1,800 charged with prostitution; 93% of the 3,000 accused of trying to buy sex.
Of the dozens of cops, lawyers and other experts ProPublica interviewed for this story, not a single one believes arrest figures for patronizing a prostitute accurately reflect the racial makeup of those who buy sex in New York City.
“I know for a fact that white men are the key demographic,” said Meredith Dank, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who, along with her colleagues, has interviewed more than 600 young people who trade sex in the city. In one study, 65% said their main clients are white.
People living paycheck to paycheck lost their jobs over crimes they swore never happened. But facing multiple court hearings and the threat of jail time, they took quick deals to move on with their lives. A former officer who worked undercover told ProPublica she participated in false arrests. Others acknowledged the system could let them slip through.
The problems became clear in interviews with 36 current and former officers and dozens of defendants, prosecutors and defense attorneys; weeks of observing court proceedings; and a review of hundreds of pages of sealed court records.
ProPublica delved into the work of one officer, identified in official documents as Undercover 157, whose cases are replete with allegations of false arrest and sexual misconduct that were never aired in court. Defense attorneys filed complaints with the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD almost three years ago, which still considers it an “ongoing matter.” In a statement, the NYPD defended the undercover officer as a veteran “with approximately 1,800 successful buys and no complaints against him at the NYPD or with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.” (The department later clarified this meant no active complaints.)
Even for a department accused in recent months of acting with impunity, those policing New York’s sex trade appear to operate in an extreme vacuum of accountability. The CCRB, originally created to investigate police misconduct against communties of color, does not address allegations of false arrest and is still trying to gain authority to examine those involving sexual abuse.
In the rare instances when defendants sue, the cases are often settled before officers have to testify.
Since 2014, the city has paid more than a million in taxpayer dollars to at least 20 people who claimed they were falsely arrested in prostitution or “john” stings. Last year, it paid $150,000 to five young Latino men who said they were laughing off a proposition when they were arrested and $20,000 to a West African taxi driver who said in a sworn deposition that he was walking home when a woman asked if he’d walk down the block with her. He told ProPublica he thought she was afraid of walking alone, so he agreed. He was then arrested.
The undercover officer in his case netted 10 arrests in three and a half hours the night she encountered him, earning her four hours of overtime pay.
Eighteen current and former officers who policed the sale of sex in New York City said overtime has motivated them for years. The hours add up over the drive to the precinct, the questioning, the paperwork. “You arrest 10 girls, now the whole team’s making eight hours of overtime,” retired Sgt. Stephen Antiuk said.
“That’s what it was all about, making money, from the lieutenant to the sergeant on down,” retired Detective John Kopack said. “You want to eat? You guys want to make some money tonight? Make some arrests, do what you got to do.”
The NYPD did not respond to ProPublica’s detailed questions about overtime or the specific incidents in this story. Sgt. Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokeswoman, said the department “maintains heightened vigilance and robust oversight over all of its undercover operations.” NYPD spokesman Al Baker said police shifted their prostitution strategy in 2017, leading to fewer arrests of sex workers, more of “johns” and a greater focus on “pimps.” He noted that selling sex is still illegal and the department “deploys officers where residents report crime” without consideration of race or ethnicity.
As New York City’s crime rate fell to record lows in recent years, the NYPD continued to draw criticism for its outsized presence in minority neighborhoods, arresting tens of thousands of Black and Latino people on minor, nonviolent infractions. This dynamic inspired calls over the summer to “defund the police,” a slogan that depicts the department as an occupying force, disproportionately ensnaring people of color in the criminal justice system.
The statistics for arrests involving the sale of sex reflect a particularly stark example of this trend.
While complaints about prostitution have long been scattered across neighborhoods of all races, arrests for buying sex are not. ProPublica found that in majority Black and Latino areas, police have arrested over three times as many alleged sex buyers as in whiter neighborhoods despite comparable complaints about prostitution and arrests of alleged sex workers in each.
Michele Alexander, who is Black, sometimes worked undercover out of a precinct in Jamaica, Queens, before she retired in 2012. “When are we going to Manhattan?” she recalls asking her supervisor, after working too many sex buyer stings where the men all looked the same. “Negroes aren’t the only ones who buy vagina.” As punishment, she said she was reassigned to an early morning tour monitoring a Manhattan subway station.
Paul Lichtbraun, a retired captain who oversaw vice in Manhattan and the Bronx until 2017, said his unit often focused on buyers, but when it received complaints about prostitution inside high-end Manhattan hotels, they’d only go after sex workers. “If I start arresting their paying customers, [the hotel’s] going to ask me to leave,” he said. “Are there always people who get off in this world? Of course there are.”
Then, there is the community college student, stopped in a majority-Black neighborhood in Brooklyn that saw more buyer arrests in the past few years than all of Manhattan and Staten Island combined. Refusing to take a plea deal, he trekked to and from court for seven months. The prosecutor ultimately dropped the charges.
The young man sued for false arrest and won a $15,000 settlement. But he lost something more fundamental, his ability to trust.
“When I see people on the street, asking for a jump or whatever, I just keep going,” he told ProPublica. “Can you imagine if it was really two girls on the corner waving for help? You just lost one guy who would stop.”
Whether police target sex workers or their clients, operations look much the same. Field teams of anywhere from eight to 16 officers are dispatched with the aim of securing verbal agreements of sex for money.
They often start with community complaints called “kites.” When there are none to follow, there are “strolls” or “tracks,” dark stretches in industrial sections of East New York or along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens where sex is bought and sold, noon and night. Massage parlors can be easy targets; words need not be spoken. Money lands on a table, there is a gesture in the motion of manual sex, a subtle nod in return.
Sometimes, no money is involved at all. “There has to be an exchange of a benefit,” said former Sgt. Louis Failla. He told the story of an undercover who once “made a deal with a crack prostitute on the street for a hamburger and fries from McDonald’s.” He always found it “humorous,” he said, “what these women would do just to get a few dollars.”
Current and former undercover officers told ProPublica there’s an art to convincing their targets they aren’t cops. Some dirty their fingernails or rub newspaper on their knees to make it look like they’ve been providing oral sex on the street. One said that if a woman insisted he touch her breasts, he would do so, but he would never squeeze.
Sometimes, officers go in to arrest a woman and find she’s completely naked. Antiuk, the retired sergeant, laughed while describing the perks of the job. “The undercover can have a nice, cold beer and watch a girl take her clothes off — and he’s getting paid for it.”
Once the deal is made, the undercover signals that it’s time for the arrest. While backup officers can sometimes hear the incriminating conversations through a wireless device, they are not required to record. Some teams have come in after getting a signal from the undercover officer, having heard nothing of the exchange.
That trust can be exploited.
Jazmia Inserillo, who retired as an NYPD officer in 2016, told ProPublica she participated in false arrests as an undercover officer without her backup team listening in. Sometimes, a young man would stop to flirt but hadn’t agreed to pay for sex before he was arrested. Once, a man pulled up and told the undercovers, “I know you the police,” she recalled. “And because he’s just talking, they just give the signal.”
Twice, men were clearly lost and stopped to ask for directions. “You’re not lost. You know what you came here for,” Inserillo remembers her partner saying one night. “What do you want, you looking for a blowjob?”
The man said he was looking for a street but couldn’t find it in the dark. As the three went back and forth, Inserillo remembered her partner lifting her back leg and leaning into the car, a signal to a backup team to initiate an arrest. “This girl puts her foot up while I’m in the middle of talking to him about cross streets,” Inserillo said.
“And I look up at my lieutenant trying to signal no. But he didn’t really understand because we didn’t have a signal for no.”
She said she’d brought up another bad arrest to a supervisor, but he ignored it.
John Hart, who was her lieutenant at that time and is now a deputy chief, told ProPublica no one in his unit ever mentioned false arrests to him. Inserillo later filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a different superior officer over an unrelated incident, saying she endured retaliation for reporting him. She won a $112,500 settlement.
The department has had the equipment to covertly record agreements between undercover officers and targets for at least 20 years, but it does so inconsistently. Some officers told ProPublica their supervisors required them to record; others said they never taped a single arrest.
“Almost none of these cases ever go to a courtroom, so that’s the reason recording was not a priority,” said Lichtbraun, the retired captain. “In vice, they weren’t always recorded. Frankly, they very often were not.”
In 2016, a civil rights attorney asked a federal judge for an injunction that would forbid the department from making buyer arrests without recording them. Gabriel Harvis was representing a Black man arrested outside of a post office after being propositioned while getting a package from the trunk of his car. The man insisted he declined the sex offer, sued for false arrest and won $85,000. But the case settled before the injunction could be considered.
Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors there did not know operations were sometimes recorded until ProPublica contacted them earlier this year. The office has handled more than 2,000 prostitution and patronizing cases since 2015.
Now that the office is aware of the recordings, Yaniv said, “we sometimes use and disclose them in cases we prosecute — those against pimps and traffickers. As in every case, if the police account raises questions or if we receive any information alleging problems with the arrest, we investigate further.”
The NYPD did not answer questions about when officers make recordings or why they choose not to. “For obvious safety and evidentiary reasons, the NYPD never discloses specifics of our tradecraft or investigatory methods in undercover cases.”
One officer, known only as Undercover 157, has developed a reputation among defense attorneys for the stories they hear about him from their clients. In multiple cases, the defendants said they never agreed to sell sex for money and thought the man with the confident smile and well-kept dreadlocks was courting them for a date.
One woman told her lawyers he had been texting her for days when she got into his car one cold, winter afternoon after he offered to drive her to the pharmacy to get asthma medication for her daughter. She said he took her to a hotel parking lot instead, near the shelter where she was staying, and offered her $100 for oral sex. She said she declined at least twice but was arrested anyway.
A young man thought the stranger was interested in him when they locked eyes out in East New York. They traded numbers and, for three straight days, exchanged heated, flirtatious messages that made no mention of money. When they met for a hook-up, his sexting companion asked if he wanted to get something to eat first. He declined; the man shoved a fistful of dollars at him, saying, “Here, take this to eat later.” Then a squad car pulled up.
In early 2018, these stories along with four others were submitted in two letters from the Legal Aid Society to the NYPD inspector general. “These incidents demonstrate a serious lack of training, protocol and supervision of Undercover 157, the units he is working with, as well as the supervising officers’ abandonment of any duty to review his arrests or monitor the outcomes of his arrests,” the letter said.
In addition to the letters, ProPublica obtained records of arrests made by Undercover 157 between 2015 and 2019 from more than 80 sealed court cases.
Seventeen women complained to their attorneys of inappropriate touching or worse. One said he penetrated her vagina with his finger, then washed his hands before officers arrived. Another said she performed oral sex on him and was arrested the next time she saw him. A third said she was in “only panties” as they danced and smoked marijuana for about 15 minutes and that he touched her vagina. A fourth, who sells sex to support her heroin addiction, told ProPublica he asked her to get completely naked and grabbed her buttocks. “He didn’t have to go to that extent,” she said.
The records show just how difficult it can be to investigate such claims. Only three of the complainants agreed to meet with the inspector general. Nearly three years later, Legal Aid is still waiting for the inquiry to conclude.
None of these allegations were ever aired before a judge. In New York City, prostitution cases are processed in Human Trafficking Intervention Court, which is supposed to help rather than punish people in the sex trade. But it functions a bit like a conveyer belt, where defendants quickly agree to counseling sessions to provide “exit strategies” out of the sex trade. If they complete them and avoid arrest, their charges are dismissed and cases are sealed.
Three former prosecutors who worked in the court told ProPublica they juggled so many cases that even if an arrest seemed flawed, they were unlikely to report it.
Cases against people accused of trying to buy sex in New York City fly through misdemeanor court at a similar clip. They almost always end with plea deals for more minor offenses like disorderly conduct or are simply dismissed. From 2015 through 2019, the court processed more than 4,100 of these cases. Only one person took his to trial. He won.
Two defendants have tried to force Undercover 157 to answer for his arrests in recent years.
In 2017, a woman accused of prostitution made the rare decision to take her case to trial. Undercover 157 was announced as the first witness. But on the day he was set to testify, prosecutor Abraham Jacob Jeger revised his initial offer: If the defendant was not arrested for six months, the charge would be sealed and dismissed, no counseling necessary. The detective never had to take the stand.
In an emailed response, Jeger said he and his supervisors made “a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it was not worth revealing this undercover’s identity” to those in court. He referred further questions to the Queens District Attorney’s Office, which said it could not comment on sealed cases.
In a 2018 case, Jillian Modzeleski, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, filed a unique legal motion called a Gissendanner, which would allow the defendant access to Undercover 157’s disciplinary records if a judge found them “relevant and material” to the case. She cited the pattern of false arrest allegations against him and his fellow officers.
Before a judge could rule on the motion, the Brooklyn DA dropped all charges. The DA would not comment on cases in this story because they are all sealed.
The NYPD also declined to discuss the detective’s cases. “We do not speak about ongoing investigations or matters in litigation. We are making only a slight exception in your case by noting that the narrative, as you presented, is not entirely accurate,” said Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, referring to an extensive summary of the false arrest and sexual misconduct allegations in this story. “We are unable to comment further.”
The department initially said Undercover 157 was an officer “with no complaints.” But the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau had indeed gotten one in November 2014:
An undocumented woman from China reported that the detective undressed her and touched her breasts and vagina at an informal massage parlor in Queens. She told investigators that when the backup team arrived, they handcuffed her and walked her through the massage parlor naked. She said she begged them to let her get dressed, but they refused. One took a photo of her.
ProPublica spoke to three attorneys involved: Lauren Hersh, who helped set up the meeting with investigators; Rosie Wang, who interpreted and kept notes; and Leigh Latimer, who represented the woman on the prostitution charge and spoke with her again last week. Court records identify the undercover officer behind her arrest as 157.
Wang said the investigators asked the woman to pick the detective out of a photo array. It had been a year since her arrest and she was unable to do so. Five months later, IAB got in touch to set up a second interview. The woman declined, saying she was tired of revisiting the traumatic experience. The department, which confirmed its investigation when ProPublica asked about it, said it closed the complaint without disciplining him.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services later granted her legal status as a trafficking victim, finding that she had been forced into sex work at the massage parlor.
ProPublica reporters were unable to learn the name of Undercover 157 to investigate him further, but they spoke with four former cops who worked with the detective. All were skeptical about the allegations. One said the detective was regarded as a “superstar” because of how good he was at convincing people to engage. But another, who trailed him as a “ghost” on dozens of arrests, said the detective rarely used a radio and usually texted or sent a signal through another wireless device instead. He said he couldn’t hear what transpired between Undercover 157 and his targets. “I was a ghost with no ears.”
After months of reporting, ProPublica was able to listen to a recording of an operation in which the defendant claimed she was falsely arrested by Undercover 157. It was made in late 2018, after the Legal Aid complaints and attempts to bring the detective to court. The audio evidence refuted her story, but it raised other questions.
Her attorney had no idea the recording existed; it was never shared before the woman’s case was sealed and dismissed. “The fact that these secret tapes exist means that the NYPD has broken the law by concealing evidence,” said Modzeleski, her attorney. “This revelation demands an investigation.” The department did not answer questions about the recording or whether it will investigate the failure to turn it over.
The recording offers a rare window into how such arrests unfold.
In October 2018, Undercover 157 knocked on the door of an East New York apartment six weeks after someone complained that the woman inside was selling sex. The 27-year-old single mother had lived there for eight months after years of instability and stints in a shelter. Through the door, he tried to convince her to do business.
“Excuse me,” she replied, “I said no. I do not know you. I have children here. No.”
In the recording, she could be heard saying ‘no’ or ‘bye’ or telling him to leave 12 times. At one point, the conversation went silent and she seemed to step away. His loud knocking resumed. “Yo!” he called out. She replied, “Stop knocking on my door.”
He persisted, feigning exasperation until she gave in. It’s unclear from the recording who brought up money first, but eventually, she asked him how much he had. He increased his offer until she agreed to let him in, raising the cash in front of her peephole at her request.
An infant could be heard crying in the background as he asked for anal sex. She told him she didn’t want to be hurt. “Are you going to be rough?” she asked.
She checked on the baby, who was now screaming. Then came another knock on the door, a banging this time.
The backup team stormed in. One shouted at her to get on the floor. She was so panicked, she said, she urinated on herself.
At least five cops were involved in the arrest. She was charged with prostitution and endangering the welfare of a child. The city’s child welfare agency removed her children and she lost custody for two months.Daniel Stolle, special to ProPublica
Almost every officer interviewed for this story said their work did little to reduce the amount of sex sold in New York City, improve the lives of those selling it or help catch criminals who force people into it.
At best, officers said, low-level prostitution arrests can temporarily assuage community complaints about noise and public sex acts, but the trade just reemerges elsewhere. “If you’re always putting a team of 10 detectives and some bosses on a corner once a week, it’s just a waste of funds,” retired Detective Efrain Collado said.
He joined vice to gain investigative experience and make a positive impact, but he became disillusioned during repeated assignments to arrest women outside three large homeless shelters near vice’s Brooklyn North headquarters.
It felt like he was kicking desperate people when they were down. “It’s a waste of time,” Collado said. “A revolving door.”
Several current and former officers described vice as a neglected stepchild within the department. With only sporadic attention from the top brass and limited opportunities to pursue traffickers, they said it draws rookies looking to make detective and keeps washouts no one else wants.
“We’re considered bottom feeders — put us in the back room in the basement,” said Antiuk, the retired sergeant. “The morale goes to a point where it becomes how many arrests are we going to make and how much overtime are we going to get. You didn’t give a shit about some of these girls.”
Former Det. Ludwig Paz is serving a prison sentence of up to 12 years for running a prostitution ring involving as many as eight locations. He recruited several officers, including his former vice partner, to help protect it. Failla, the former sergeant, was fired last year after he was implicated in the scheme; he said he was an unwitting participant, passing on intel Paz used to protect his operation.
It was the latest in a long line of scandals involving the NYPD and the sex trade. Officers have been caught exploiting or protecting the trade about once or twice a decade going back to the 1972 Knapp Commission, which found that bribes from brothel operators and other criminals were widespread in the department and that a number of locations offered half-priced sex to police in exchange for protection.
Two competing measures are being discussed by state legislators, aiming to end prostitution arrests and the trouble that surrounds them.
“Full decriminalization” would remove criminal penalties for buying or selling sex. Supporters argue that sex for money is a victimless crime so long as the transactions take place between two consenting adults. They say laws primarily impact poor people of color and only make life for sex workers more dangerous.
Kopack, who worked on trafficking investigations and street-level enforcement, echoed the sentiment, saying the threat of prostitution arrests can make life easier for traffickers, because those they exploit are less likely to seek help. “They get the shit beaten out of them, but they know if the cops come, they’re going to get arrested.”
The “Equality Model” would keep penalties in place for buying sex but decriminalize selling it. Proponents believe that while sex workers should be treated as victims, not criminals, the government should still aim to abolish the sex trade, which they say can too easily lead to rape and other abuses. If buying sex is legal, they argue, more men will do so, which would increase trafficking.
Trafficking, sex with minors and various forms of coercion or promotion would remain illegal under either policy. The full decriminalization bill is stuck in New York Senate and Assembly committees. Lawmakers who support the “Equality Model” say they plan to introduce counter legislation in the next year or so.
De Blasio hasn’t taken a position on whether the law should be changed, but he had to confront the issue after the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco.
The 27-year-old transgender woman had been arrested for allegedly agreeing to perform oral sex on an undercover officer and then failed to show up at the court designed to help sex workers, resulting in a bench warrant. She was arrested on a separate charge and sent to Rikers Island because she couldn’t afford the $500 bail set for having missed appeareances on the prostitution charge. She had a seizure in a solitary cell and died.
Seventeen corrections officers were disciplined after a report showed how guards left her unattended while she needed medical attention. Her family sued and won a $5.9 million settlement. Decriminalization activists, members of the LGBTQ community and public officials like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blamed the death on a system that targets and traps people who are already poor and marginalized.
When a reporter from The City, a local nonprofit news organization, asked de Blasio about the case in September, he made news with his response: “To the question of whether sex workers should be arrested, my broad answer is no.”
In response to questions for this story, de Blasio’s spokeswoman Avery Cohen did not take a positition on the criminalization of sex work or respond to questions about racial disparities in enforcement. She underscored that sex workers are no longer “the key targets of arrest” and said, “Whether it’s through state legislation or through city policy, we are working to end exploitation and aid survivors of human trafficking. The NYPD Vice Unit will conduct itself in a way that reflects this goal.”
Prostitution arrests began to decline in 2017 when New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill promised to shift resources toward traffickers and buyers. “Make no mistake, this is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world, but the NYPD will not allow it to fester,” he said, announcing the addition of 25 vice officers to “conduct initial screening in trafficking cases.”
But two officers who worked in vice at the time told ProPublica that the promise belied the way it was carried out. The department sent its least experienced officers, so-called white shields who occupy the lowest rank. According to the two officers, the new additions went after sex workers and their customers, not traffickers.
A separate anti-trafficking unit, which had fewer than 10 members, regularly had to turn down leads. With the unit short on personnel, Collado said, even experienced anti-trafficking detectives like himself had to focus mostly on “low-hanging fruit” rather than genuine trafficking networks. Arrests where the top charge is sex trafficking have increased only slightly in recent years, peaking at 55 in 2018, according to city data on violations of New York state law.
“There are no resources and there is no real investment,” said Anila Duro, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a member of the federally funded Human Trafficking Task Force at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, citing conversations with current officers.
Baker, the NYPD spokesman, countered that assessment, defending the department’s emphasis on trafficking and portraying vice as a unit of dedicated officers doing meaningful work. He confirmed that the 25 investigators were white shields but said they were “specially trained to investigate complaints of human trafficking and to conduct enforcement and build strong cases.” He said the move increased vice’s staffing to 114, but it’s now down to 96 because the department has had to respond to other pressing matters, like upticks in violent crime, protests and the coronavirus pandemic. Since April, there have been just 22 arrests for prostitution and 87 for patronizing.
He also emphasized the work of two federal partnerships dedicated to trafficking, one with the FBI, which includes nine NYPD officers, and another with the Department of Homeland Security, which he said has seven. He said that the vice human trafficking unit still includes nine officers. Combined, that equals 25, which he said “represents a stable commitment to the vision articulated in 2017.”
Baker said there have been over 4,500 emergency calls regarding prostitution since 2016 and there are approximately 30 “tracks” that “generate complaints routinely from residents.” He sent statistics showing that prostitution-related arrests overall have decreased, but that those of “pimps” now account for a larger proportion, from 8% in 2015 to 12% in 2019. As evidence of the department’s anti-trafficking work, he pointed to several busts from recent years, including the arrest of a man last week for allegedly trafficking underage girls across county lines.
Collado said his experience in vice’s anti-trafficking unit did not reflect a real commitment to pursuing criminals who force people into prostitution. He said that in his two years on the unit ending in 2018, he only got to work on one serious investigation. It stalled, partly because it was left only to him and one other detective. The case involves dozens of women. He said his partner is still working on it, two years after Collado retired.
“You’re not going to get traffickers the way they’re doing it,” Collado told ProPublica. “Change has got to come from the top.”
This year, amid a national outcry over police violence, the conversation turned to reducing budgets as a way to force reform. Overtime pay might be a place to start cutting, according to advocates and even some officers.
“When people are screaming, ‘Defund the police,’ I got no problems with that because they are wasting fucking money,” said Sgt. Steven Lee, who briefly worked as an interpreter during prostitution arrests and positioned himself as a whistleblower in a recent state Assembly race.
Units that involve a lot of arrests, like vice and narcotics, are known destinations for overtime pay. “It’s called collars for dollars,” said Failla, invoking a term for a practice that has dogged the department for decades. “The more bodies you put in the van, the more overtime there was.”
Elizabeth Velazquez, who retired in 2019, said she started doing “john” stings early in her career to supplement an otherwise modest salary. “That was the point of doing the operation,” she said. “I was a single parent. I needed to pay my mortgage.”
Many officers told ProPublica their colleagues have come to rely on padded paychecks to support lifestyles they otherwise could not afford. They may buy houses or cars on take-home pay that could shrink if they make fewer arrests.
Some squeeze all they can out of overtime because it factors into pension payouts, often based on the years in which they took home the most money. It can pay dividends for the rest of their lives.
The city has pledged to reduce police overtime spending and abuse in recent years, but data and documents suggest limited success. Detectives can still easily add 30% to their salaries through overtime. A typical third-grade detective makes almost $35,000 a year in extra pay, atop an average base salary of $97,000.
In the last three fiscal years, the city has budgeted over $600 million a year for overtime. The department exceeded that figure by at least $100 million each year.
In an interview, one high-ranking NYPD official described overtime as an instrument to encourage all sorts of arrests, used by supervisors under pressure to produce numbers. “Take away overtime and show me how much loyalty you have left.”
Another said that in units like vice, this can discourage officers from launching more complicated investigations that might have more long-term impact. “They go for the low-hanging fruit. Easy collars,” he said. “That’s where they make their money.”
As pressure mounted to reduce police funding following protests this spring, de Blasio and the City Council agreed in June to cut the overtime budget by more than half. Even so, the city’s Independent Budget Office estimated that in fiscal year 2021, the NYPD will spend almost as much on overtime as it usually does, overshooting its budget by $400 million. That’s more than the city Health Department spent in fiscal year 2019 on emergency preparedness, addiction treatment, communicable diseases, immunizations and HIV prevention combined.
The NYPD did not respond to questions about what it’s doing to reduce overtime spending.
Antiuk, who retired three years ago, told ProPublica he is still “living off the royalties from back in the day,” referring to the vice overtime that boosted his pension. In his last 18 months on the job, records show, he made about $85,000 in extra pay.
He laughed as he remembered comparing his wages to those of a “really pretty Spanish girl” he had arrested.
“I make more money than you,” he recalled her saying to him in a hotel room. To which he replied: “Oh yeah? Well, you must be rich, because I’m doing really well.”
That was about all there was to show for his three years helping run vice in the Bronx, Antiuk said.
“I’ll tell you the truth straight up, man. It was a joke.”
About the Data
To help understand how the New York Police Department’s priorities changed over time and which demographic groups were most affected by the policing of prostitution, we analyzed NYPD data, looking at arrests where the top charge was either prostitution or patronizing a prostitute in the third degree. (Patronizing a prostitute in the first or second degree is a felony charge involving a minor, and those arrests are uncommon. We also restricted our analysis of court data to cases where prostitution or third-degree patronizing was the top charge.) We analyzed the race of people arrested on these charges between October 2016 and September 2020.
Then, using public data on the number of prostitution-related 311 and 911 calls in each police precinct, we compared those complaints to the number of arrests in each precinct. (We restricted our analysis to the period between July 2017 and December 2019, in order to reflect the department’s strategic shift in early 2017 and avoid the possibility of the coronavirus pandemic muddling results). We found that the number of prostitution arrests was indeed strongly correlated to the number of complaints in a given area. Patronizing arrests, however, were only loosely correlated with complaints.
We factored in the racial demographics of each precinct using statistics prepared for us from census data by Measure of America, a program of the Social Science Research Council. We then conducted what’s called a regression analysis, which let us hold one factor constant and then see if the precinct’s demographics are tied to the number of patronizing arrests. We found that demographics did make a significant difference. If we compared precincts with a similar number of complaints, the precinct with a higher percentage of Black and Latino residents usually had significantly more buyer arrests. Similarly, when we compared precincts with a similar number of arrests for prostitution, the same pattern was evident — the neighborhood with a larger Black and Latino population had more arrests for people buying sex.