sex workers rampant in open-air prostitution market amid lax enforcement
It’s well after midnight on a Saturday morning, but traffic is as thick as rush hour along a four-block industrial stretch in East New York, Brooklyn.
Scantily clad women walk mid-block, their heels click-clacking on the asphalt as they move from car to car, leaning into driver’s side windows to entice the next man in line.
One woman on the sidelines, appearing disinterested, sips from a can of Red Bull through a straw.
It’s a rare break in a cycle that repeats for hours on end: Hopping into strangers’ cars, riding out of view for 10, sometimes 30 minutes, then getting dropped back off to do it all again.
This open-air sex market has operated in plain sight on Friday and Saturday nights for months. The women, many likely trafficking victims, stop drivers who line up for their services. Their pimps pull the strings from the shadows.
The authorities largely turn a blind eye to it all — amid a shift away from cracking downon prostitution, a Post investigation has found.
That leaves the women and their handlers undeterred from doing a brisk enough business that traffic backs up along the stretch — enough for one reporter’s Waze GPS app to detect the jam, even in the dead of night.
Apparent pimps and traffickers keep watch from flashy cars idling on the stretch, including a black Cadillac Escalade and a white Mercedes SUV.
They’re rarely seen interacting with the women they’ve forced into this life, their mere presence enough to maintain a general sense of business-like order to the flesh trade.
On one night, a driver pulled his black Nissan sedan in behind a reporter’s car and revved the engine as though to intimidate the scribe, who wasn’t bothered again after relocating to another spot out of sight.
When the police ride through — in both marked and unmarked cars — business mostly carries on without interruption.
While cruising down the block one night, a cop flashed the lights of their unmarked car in an apparent attempt at deterrence but took no other action.
Current and former vice cops told The Post that there’s little incentive to make arrests, with the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez moving away from prosecuting prostitution cases, a shift that began in mid-2019.
In January, Gonzalez’s office moved to vacate some 262 warrants stemming from prostitution cases dating back to 2012.
The next month saw the statewide repealof the so-called “Walking While Trans” law, barring law enforcement from arresting individuals who appear to be loitering for the purpose of prostitution.
In March, following the state law’s repeal, Gonzalez asked a judge to dismiss another 857 open cases spanning from 1970 through 2011.
His Queens counterpart, Melinda Katz, followed suit in asking a judge to dismiss and seal more than 670 such cases, and Manhattan DA Cy Vance in April tossed thousands of warrants and announced his office would no longer prosecute prostitution and unlicensed massage cases.
The NYPD insiders said the shift has done more harm than good for the sex workers, with pimps now feeling emboldened to ply their trade in plain view.
“They are only hurting the girls who are walking the strolls, because they are the real victims,” said one active vice cop. “A lot of the girls are young and have pimps … [and] are victims of human trafficking.
“Ironically, the DAs are doing the pimps a favor,” the source continued. “If they really cared about the girls, they would be out there at 3 in the morning offering them assistance instead of sleeping in their air-conditioned homes.”
A former vice cop concurred.
“They don’t care about the girls. All they care about is decriminalizing everything,” that source said. “If they really care, they would be on the streets trying to help these girls.”
Statistics obtained from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services show that the number of arrests in Brooklyn in which loitering for the purpose of prostitution was the top charge declined from 39 in 2018 to 13 in 2019, before hitting zero in 2020 to coincide with the district attorney’s shift away from prosecution.
But sex-trafficking experts identified the real problem as a lack of enforcement against johns and pimps as compared to the women — a trend as old as prostitution itself that, statistics show, continues to this day.
“The pimp doesn’t give a s–t if his victim is arrested or if she’s not. What the pimp cares about is the bottom line, the dollars,” said Lauren Hersh, a former sex-trafficking and special victims prosecutor in Brooklyn. “So if the police were arresting the johns and targeting the demand for commercial sex, then ultimately what it would do is cause a chilling effect.”
Hersh, who now runs the anti-sex-trafficking nonprofit World Without Exploitation, said one of the best ways to help trafficked women was to target the demand.
“We want to make sure that those who are being exploited are getting the services they need, not criminal penalties,” she said. “But it’s a real problem to give a free pass to … these sex buyers who are fueling the market.”
Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Sanctuary for Families legal center and an attorney who has worked with victims of gender-based violence for nearly 50 years, agreed.
“They should be looking at the demand side, because the sex-trafficking industry is a demand-driven industry,” she said. “We’re happy that the NYPD is no longer arresting vulnerable women and girls and LGBTQ people, especially transgender women … but we want to see enforcement around demand.
“It really requires the NYPD and Brooklyn DA to tackle demand,” she continued. “Are they doing everything possible to tackle demand and curtail this?”
The DCJS stats show that while prostitution arrests have dried up in Brooklyn, busts of johns and pimps have also dropped.
In 2018, there were 279 arrests in the borough in which patronizing a prostitute in the third degree was the top charge.
The next year, that figure plummeted to 82, or less than a third of the previous year’s total, the stats show.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the number dropped to 28, and as of June 18, it was on pace to fall again, with just four tallied this year.
Busts for promoting prostitution have followed a similar trend.
In 2018, Brooklyn saw a combined 36 arrests in which some degree of promoting prostitution was the top charge.
That figure dipped in 2019 to 26, and by 2020 stood at just seven.
There were only two such arrests in the borough this year through June 18.
Asked about the decline, an NYPD spokesman said that while overall busts of pimps and johns have declined since citywide “enforcement priorities shifted in early 2017,” they have grown to represent a greater share of prostitution-related arrests.
“Since the strategy shift in 2017, the arrests of those for selling sex — ‘prostitution’ arrests — have precipitously dropped,” the department statement read in part. “At the same time, though arrests of buyers (johns) and promoters (pimps) of sex have also gone down, those arrests now make up a greater percentage of the overall arrests the NYPD makes.”
A spokesman for the Brooklyn DA’s Office noted that it is hardly turning away a torrent of prostitution cases, and that it still aggressively pursues action against alleged pimps as cases come in.
“Since the start of this year our office declined to prosecute a grand total of three prostitution-related arrests,” the spokesman said in a statement. “We have a Sex Trafficking Unit that vigorously prosecutes pimps and traffickers while working with service providers to get assistance to victims of trafficking.
“We stand ready to engage with communities, advocates and the police to address any concerns involving prostitution.”
City Councilwoman Inez Barron, whose district includes the tract, told The Post that she was unaware of its existence, but vowed to have the NYPD shut it down.
“We certainly want to make sure we maintain those kinds of conditions that make it pleasant and safe for everyone in the city,” the Democrat said.
Hersh, who noted that many sex-trade victims are minority, often LGBTQ women from poor backgrounds — some of whom were forced into the life amid the pandemic-related economic downturn — likened the best approach to a ticket blitz to discourage lead-footed drivers.
“It’s kind of like the speed trap in a local neighborhood,” she said. “People know to slow down before they get to the speed trap, they’re not going to race through it.
“If the sex buyers knew that there were arrests happening for sex buyers, those guys — the pillars of the community, the doctors, the lawyers, the accountants, the business people — they’ll stop buying in those places,” Hersh said.
“Now it’s just right there on the street.”