Rachel*, 45, an Alaskan sex worker, doesn't remember exactly when she got caught up in an undercover police sting operation. "There was snow on the ground," she remembers with unexpected poetry over the phone.
Getting hold of Rachel for an interview has been difficult. We've arranged a time to speak on the phone a couple of times, but she hasn't picked up until now. It's understandable. Prostitution is illegal in Alaska, as it is across most of the US. As a result, sex workers are cautious by definition—and speaking out publicly about alleged police abuse goes against all of her professional instincts.
When Rachel and I finally speak, her voice is flat as she recounts what happened to her—as if it happened to someone else.
"He seemed like a completely regular customer until afterwards," Rachel says of the police officer. After posting an escort ad online at some point in the winter of 2008, Rachel answered a hotel out-call.
"We had sex to completion," she says softly. "The money was on the table, but I didn't touch it. Afterwards, he kept insisting I take the money. It felt very strange."
That's when the police officer told Rachel he was going to arrest her. "I said, 'But I didn't do anything wrong? What are you going to arrest me for?'" Thinking on her feet, Rachel invented a story. She told him that she was attracted to him and had sex with him for pleasure, not work.
"That's when he looked at me and got this really crazy grin on his face, and he says to me—verbatim—'You're a very wise woman and I'm proud of you.'" Terrified of being arrested, Rachel ran to her car, leaving the money behind. The enormity of the situation only sunk in afterwards.
"I felt violated," she explains, her voice becoming more emotional. "It was a horrible experience. It was like, because he had a badge, it was okay—he could just do it."
"The Anchorage Police Department has a vice unit that investigates several crimes to include prostitution," responds spokesperson Renee Oistad. "While we will not discuss our investigative techniques, it is against APD's policy for any of our sworn police officers to have sex with a prostitute for any reason; this includes sex-related case work."
In an email to Broadly, APD maintain that the incident Rachel describes was not reported to them officially. However, Broadly viewed emails between sex worker and Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP) activist Tara Burns to Captain K.D. McCoy of APD's internal affairs team, discussing Rachel's case. In the emails, which Burns provided to Broadly, McCoy acknowledges that the "incident you described would be a clear violation of our internal policies."
"The reality of some police having sex with sex workers during the course of undercover operations has been in existence as long as selling sex has been a criminal offense," explains Dr. Alexandra Lutnick, an expert on the US sex industry at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. A research study that she conducted in San Francisco found that over 14 percent of sex workers said that they had been threatened with arrest unless they had sex with a police officer, and two percent had been arrested after having sex with an officer anyway.
Astonishingly, it's not specifically illegal for police officers in many states to have sex with sex workers during the course of sting operations. In Alaska, it is against APD policy for serving police to have sex with sex workers, though it is presently only a specific offence under state law for officers to have sex with someone in custody. Broadly reached out to the APD for further clarification on what punishments might be faced by a police officer caught having sex with a sex worker on the job, but they did not respond to our enquiry.
Some legislators, like Democrat politician Matt Claman, are pushing for reform; Claman has just sponsored House Bill 112, which seeks to expand the state's sexual assault laws to prevent police officers from having sexual contact with those they are investigating. Other states have done this already. In Hawaii, legislators amended the law in 2014 to prevent police officers from engaging in sexual conduct during operations, to gripes from Hawaiian cops about how they needed to round fourth base to do all their important detective work.
Anchorage Police Department has past form when it comes to engaging in sexual relations on the job. In 1982, a case involving an APD officer who'd received a hand job from a sex worker during an undercover operation went to the Court of Appeals of Alaska (the court ruled that the sex worker had not been entrapped, and criminal proceedings against her could proceed), and a APD charging document from 2014 references an undercover sting operation during which a sex worker "reached her hand under the towel, touching his [the male officer's] penis."
That same year, Sergeant Kathy Lacey of the APD undercover vice unit told a reporter from The Laura Flanders Show, "There have been incidences of sexual misconduct by police officers, without a doubt. We have one here in Anchorage. That is just gonna happen." (Lacey is now retired.)
Sex workers in Alaska are also coming under increasing attack as a result of new, statewide anti-trafficking laws. In 2012, Alaskan legislators introduced a law that effectively redefined sex trafficking as anything seen to facilitate prostitution, including instances when sex workers work collectively in brothels for mutual protection.
The real threat to sex workers is local police who are getting away with drinking and smoking and sexually assaulting prostitutes on the taxpayer dime.
The results, according to Burns's sex worker alliance, Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), are Kafka-esque. In one incident, a sex worker was charged with trafficking herself. In another high-profile case, Alaskan sex worker Amber Batts was convicted of running a sex trafficking ring and sentenced to five years for sex trafficking in the second degree. Her supporters argue that Batts was simply practicing basic harm reduction principles—screening potential clients, providing safe facilities for sex—and that none of the women she worked with were trafficked.
"One of the things the anti-trafficking legislation has done is bring federal money under the anti-trafficking laws," explains sex worker and CUSP activist Maxine Doogan. "So the way they try and find trafficked victims is through prostitution sting operations." National bodies such as the FBI's Innocence Lost National Initiative coordinate state and local police in federally funded anti-trafficking stings. And the APD boasted of the success of one joint initiative in September 2016, when officers working alongside the FBI arrested nine people they alleged to be sex trafficking victims in a prostitution sting (some of which, like in Rachel's case, took place in hotels.)
Federal and state police work together on anti-trafficking sting operations, Doogan explains. "Local police have to make the prostitution arrests, as the federal government can't—prostitution isn't illegal at the federal level."
While no-one doubts the importance of eradicating the horrific crime of sex trafficking, advocates argue that federal support for anti-trafficking initiatives is really a way to eradicate the sex industry by proxy. According to the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, sex trafficking is defined as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act." As such, anyone working in the sex industry—from the guy driving a sex worker to a job, to a brothel madam—is breaking anti-trafficking laws, and liable to arrest. "From its inception, anti-trafficking laws in the United States have also been about trying to eliminate the sex industry," Lutnick argues.
They get to screw us for free, and cops love freebies.
The perfect storm of anti-trafficking laws and existing anti-prostitution legislation provides added impetus for police officers looking to make arrests, and undercover sting operations are one way of catching sex workers. Broadly was provided with a transcript and audio of an alleged operation which took place on July 1, 2014, two years after the new anti-trafficking laws were passed by CUSP. (We reached out to the Anchorage Department of Public Safety to verify its contents, but they denied our request.) Although the recording is fuzzy, phrases can be made out over muffled moans.
"Oh baby, I've never had that before! Can you feel my heartbeat?" the officer says. He chuckles and offers her $300. "I'm going to give you a gift."
Seconds later, people are heard entering the room. One voice identifies the group as state troopers; another asks the sex worker to raise their hands. (The sex worker in this case was not charged with any crime after she agreed to testify against the woman who'd allegedly trafficked her.) Burns made a formal complaint on behalf of the sex worker involved in the sting operation to Alaska's Department of Public Safety, which is responsible for the conduct of its state troopers. In a letter viewed Burns provided to Broadly, they denied any sexual contact had taken place.
"There is no phenomenon of sex workers having sex with undercover police officers in Alaska before being arrested by them," says Tim DeSpain of the Alaska State Troopers. "Sexual relations with the subject of a prostitution investigation exceeds the authority allowed to an officer during an investigation and the officer engaging in this conduct could be charged with the crime of prostitution," he adds, noting that it could also result in being charged with other offences, including coercion or sexual assault in the third or fourth degree. DeSpain also says an officer found to be undertaking such activities would lose their job and license to be a police officer.
Advocates say that anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution laws do not make sex workers safer; it only ever puts them in harm's way. "The criminalization of prostitution increases sex workers' risk of experiencing violence, exploitation, and trafficking," Lutnick argues. "Arresting people who sell or buy sex negatively impacts the ability of sex workers to protect their health and safety, and results in antagonistic relationships with the police. Furthermore, having an arrest record severely compromises people's ability to thrive."
As a result, the victims of these sting operations usually stay silent. "The real threat to sex workers," Doogan says, "is local police who are getting away with drinking and smoking and sexually assaulting prostitutes on the taxpayer dime."
Former LAPD officer and sex worker activist Norma Jean Almodovar says that many undercover vice cops engaging in prostitution busts have less than honorable intentions. "It's a game to them," she says of her decade working as a civilian traffic officer between the 70s and 80s. "They get to screw us for free, and cops love freebies. Think how much they love donuts."
The devastating consequences of being targeted in an undercover sting can last years. Years on, Rachel is still processing what happened to her with a mixture of humiliation and rage. "I felt raped at the end of [the experience]," she says. "I felt very much tricked."
Rachel is not alone in her outrage. Most of the public believe that such behavior from cops should be banned. One 2017 CUSP study found that 92 percent of 904 Alaskan survey respondents were not aware that police officers could have sexual intercourse with women before arresting them. Ninety percent believed it should be made illegal. But progress—from police institutions and lawmakers—is slow. Protecting the rights of sex workers is rarely seen as a legislative priority, and this is unlikely to change any time fast. Police officers, meanwhile, can continue acting with impunity.
"We see this as state-sponsored sexual assault," Doogan says. "For a police officer to fraudulently present himself as a legitimate customer, and then engage in the sex act and take the money back and arrest you—at that point, it becomes assault. You can call it institutional rape."
Illustration by Jennifer Kahn.
* Name has been changed