Super Bowl Prostitution Crackdown: Inside the NYPD’s New Strategy

On the eve of the big game, city officials ramp up efforts to help victims of sex trafficking and prosecute pimps

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From left: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and New York City Police Dept. Chief of Department Philip Banks display a chart relating to the Super Bowl "party packs" at a news conference, in New York City, on Jan. 30, 2014.

When the Super Bowl comes to town, legend has it, the sex trade booms. And this year’s game is in the same metropolitan area that inspired The Wolf of Wall Street, and is home to a former governor known as “Client 9.”   It’s a match made for vice.  With its relatively blasé attitude toward sex, pockets of extreme poverty, and robust international migration, the City that Never Sleeps rivals Las Vegas as a mecca for the illicit sex trade.   And the Super Bowl has been called “the single largest human trafficking incident” in the nation, though exact numbers are hard to estimate because the trade is illicit and those who are trafficked often fear coming forward.

Anthony Favale, the New York City Police Department’s vice unit coordinator, says the department will be running more enforcement operations in the walk up to the event.  “I don’t know if the increased number [of prostitutes] is a legend or not,” he said, “but I am exploiting the opportunity.” And indeed, just four days before the game, as the 800,000 expected visitors were starting to arrive, New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, announced that the NYPD had arrested 18 people for allegedly running a high-end prostitution and drug trafficking organization that was marketing “party packs” of prostitutes and drugs  to wealthy clientele coming for the Super Bowl.

The NYPD won’t be the first police department to turn the football extravaganza into a vice enforcement bonanza. During the Dallas Super Bowl in 2011, the city’s chief of police predicted thousands of prostitutes would descend on the city and ended up arresting 133 minors.  In Indianapolis in 2012, police cracked down after Backpage and Craigslist ads selling the services of underage girls increased.

Sex trafficking victim advocates say annual Super Bowl crackdowns are great, but not enough. They want a law enforcement paradigm shift that aims to eradicate prostitution by focusing on demand, treating prostitutes (whom they refer to as ”prostituted women”) as victims, and criminalizing clients. Their efforts have gained ground in some cities.  Around the country, the movement to decriminalize minors has taken hold, and more and more arrested underage girls find themselves facing social services instead of jail.

The so-called Stockholm model is their chief success story. In 1999, Sweden outlawed purchasing or attempting to purchase sexual services, while giving prostitutes a legal pass. By 2007, Sweden was estimated to have the lowest number of victims of human trafficking in Europe. The strategy is being tried in other Scandinavian countries and in Tel Aviv, Paris and Chicago. Even in Amsterdam,  a mayor campaigned to close the brothels in the red light district, and the city set up a hotline for buyers to call in order to verify that an independent prostitute is not a trafficking victim who had either been forced into prostitution or transported across state lines. (A majority of prostitutes in the Netherlands, France, and Germany are foreign nationals, many from Eastern European countries.)

In New York City, human trafficking victim advocates won former Police Commission Ray Kelly’s support when they brought a group of women from Asia, Central America, Eastern Europe and the United States into his office for a conference. Speaking different languages and telling different stories, they had one thing in common: all had been brought to New York to serve in the sex industry.  Their first English words were “blow job” and “f**k.”  They described being tricked, fooled and kidnapped into selling their bodies. Kelly, his aides said, was so moved by their stories that he initiated the NYPD’s Human Trafficking Unit, the first of its kind in any American city.

Eight investigators and a sergeant are assigned to identify pimps and trafficking organizations, and patrols were assigned to put more pressure on clients. In two sweeps in early 2012, 386 men were arrested in Operation Losing Proposition. The clients were named and shamed were fined or lost their vehicles and sentenced to “john school” in Brooklyn, where trafficked women’s stories are intended to help the men see the dark and abusive side of the industry. In New York, patronizing a prostitute is a Class A misdemeanor, but repeat offenders can face higher penalties.

Favale said the NYPD continues to focus on demand, by running regular stings and he claims the NYPD arrested an average of 100 johns per month since the unit was created. But they are also still focusing on supply. He takes credit for breaking up at least six escort rings, and in those cases, adult women (minors get a pass under New York law) were also arrested.

But in this week’s prostitution ring bust, which was the result of a year-long operation, A.G. Schneiderman’s statement emphasized the harm the industry can do to the prostitutes themselves, noting that the enforcement efforts aim to “take down networks of criminals who exploit women and poison our communities for profit.”

And Favale points out that a  Super Bowl planning committee prompted a new working relationship between the NYPD and the hospitality industry,  Since online prostitution usually involves hotel rooms, he has been meeting with hotel security, and is beginning to train staff to recognize and respond to signs of human trafficking.

Visitors to NYC hotels will also soon find human trafficking hotline numbers on soap wrappers.  “One of the locations where a girl, a victim of trafficking has a moment of privacy is in a hotel bathroom,” Favale said. “In a lot of these hotels, the traffickers fly under the radar.”

Victim advocates are also mounting a public service ad campaign on area roads, in subways and on TV.  In New York, Taina Bien-Aime, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said: “The ads will say, the Super Bowl is great, but if you pay for sex this week in New York, you will be fined and in jail. It is a fact that when you have demand there is an increase of supply in the sex trade. If you are going to have an influx of men coming in for a sports event, the pimps will see an opportunity to sell women. That is clear.”

Favale says the department definitely expects an increase in trafficked women crossing state lines for the Super Bowl, and under federal statutes like the Mann Act, that is easier to prosecute.  Favale said more arrests give police more opportunity to debrief women and girls and determine if they are under the control of third parties – that is, trafficked. Ironically, he said, the more the girls and women the police arrest, the more the victims among them eventually come around to help the police. “A human trafficking case is like a homicide case: you have to do it without the cooperation of the victim. These women and girls build a hard shell around themselves. The more operations we do, the better our chances of winning their trust.”