Speaking at One Police Plaza on Wednesday, First Lady Chirlane McCray urged victims of sex trafficking in New York City to trust the police to investigate, prosecute, and punish pimps and johns. Acknowledging President Trump's recent executive orders, which could give federal immigration officials greater leverage to deport non-citizens, she made a special overture to immigrant victims, urging them to come forward with tips.
In addition to a visa program for sex crime victims who cooperate with investigators, a new anonymous hotline, announced Wednesday, will be staffed around the clock to report allegations of trafficking, which is generally defined as coercive commerical sex operations.
"We are already hearing that victims are afraid to come forward for fear of being deported," McCray said. "If you are being forced to engage in any sex against your will, we want to help you."
"The city and the NYPD do not want to prosecute you or ask about your immigration status," she added. "Please, do not be afraid."
In the last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio has insisted that New York will protect its own—documented or otherwise. At the same time, advocates have begun challenging the mayor to look more closely at quality of life policing, which disproportionally impacts poor people of color. An arrest for loitering, a common prostitution-related charge, can land a non-citizen in a database accessible to federal immigration agents.
Trump's executive orders on immigration target anyone who has been charged with a crime, whether or not they have been convicted.
"The NYPD may assure that they will not ask individuals about their immigration status, but for structural reasons, in terms of who and what the department targets, it may still inadvertently aid Trump's hateful deportation agenda," said Immigrant Defense Project communications director Michael Velarde in a statement.
McCray's overture was part of a press conference to announce an expansion of resources within the NYPD's Vice Unit, which investigates sex trafficking cases. The unit has recently acquired an additional 25 officers, and NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill described a new training initiative—one that he said will shift the approach to policing prostitution and sex trafficking in New York City.
"One of the ways we are combating this issue is altering the law enforcement mindset through training and recognition," O'Neill said. "We've already switched much of our emphasis away from prostitutes and begun focusing much more on the pimps who sell them and the johns who pay for their services. Like all crime, we can't just arrest our way out of this problem."
New York has passed legislation in recent years to protect adults and minors accused of prostitution. The state's safe harbor law protects children 17 and under from being charged with prostitution. And in 2009 the state passed legislation that can help human trafficking victims erase prostitution and related convictions from their criminal records. Over the next three years, Safe Horizon, a nonprofit that offers counseling to victims of trafficking, will place two advocates in each police precinct across the city.
"New York is still a sanctuary city, and it does mean that no law enforcement agency will pass on [immigration] information if someone is seeking help," said attorney Shani Adess, head of the Immigration Law Project at Safe Horizon. "The more you have these specially-trained police officers... the absolute better."
But historically, Immigrant Defense Project attorney Genia Blaser said, "the city has investigated sex trafficking by arresting people on the street for crimes related to sex work." That process, she added, "causes them to go through a system where they are fingerprinted."
The NYPD focus on human trafficking is on pimps & those who pay for their services. Long-term investigations are aimed at buyers & promoters pic.twitter.com/cJqAUml9N1
— NYPD NEWS (@NYPDnews) February 1, 2017
A recent Village Voice investigation found that between 2012 and 2015, the NYPD arrested 1,300 people in NYC for allegedly "loitering for the purposes of prostitution." The majority of the arrestees were women and trans women. Advocates argue that the arrests are highly subjective, based on an individual's appearance or posture on the street. According to the Voice, during that time period 68.5 percent of arrests took place in Bushwick, East New York, Brownsville, and Fordham Heights—all low-income communities of color.
"We are happy to report that these arrests are down in a lot of places, but we still see them," said Legal Aid attorney Kate Mogulescu, who heads up the organization's human trafficking advocacy program.
At the same time, she said, raids of so-called "massage parlors," under investigation for prostitution, are up. According to the Legal Aid Society, 631 people were arrested and charged with practicing massage without a license last year, up from just 31 in 2012. The majority of the arrestees are Chinese and Korean women. According to Mogulescu, 91 percent of the 2016 cases are against non-citizens.
Asked on Wednesday if alleged sex trafficking victims would continue to be brought into custody and fingerprinted, Commissioner O'Neill dodged at first. "We have to take a look and make sure we ask the right questions and people don't get victimized," he said.
Pressed further, he said, "We'll make that determination on a case-by-case basis."
Lori Cohen, director of the anti-trafficking initiative at Sanctuary for Families, praised the NYPD on Wednesday.
"By developing strategies that target individuals who buy and sell sex, rather than those that are bought and sold, the NYPD is shutting off the economic engine that drives commercial sexual exploitation," she said.
But Mogulescu said that even if the NYPD is making a concerted effort to cut back on prostitution arrests, there's more to be done.
"We can't cordon off [prostitution] and say, 'Here we're not focusing on these folks,'" she said. "These are the same folks implicated in broken windows."
Since Trump's executive orders came down, Mayor de Blasio has told reporters that broken windows—which disproportionately targets low income New Yorkers of color for minor offenses like trespass and drinking in public—is "its own discussion."
"You really have to change community feelings of safety around police in order for this message to have any real meaning," Mogulescu added. "It's a chicken and egg question. The distrust of law enforcement, which is well earned, is what needs to fundamentally shift."