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Strippers Are Suing the San Diego Police for Making Them Pose for Photos in Their Underwear

Working on the San Diego Police Department's vice squad is like being a fraternity bro with a gun holster—which is why 30 strippers are now suing the SDPD for what they call harassment from the cops.

by Arielle Pardes
Jul 29 2014, 7:45pm

Photo via Flickr user Bill Morrow

Nothing screams “fuck the police” quite as much as a few dozen strippers slapping the San Diego Police Department with a fat lawsuit this month. The suit refers to an incident back in March, when ten police officers—who were armed and wearing raid vests—busted into Cheetahs Gentlemen’s Club in San Diego and allegedly harassed the strippers for nearly two hours. The media has made this out to seem like an isolated incident, but this kind of behavior is pretty standard for the SDPD’s vice unit, which is the law enforcement equivalent of a bunch of party-hungry frat bros.

The vice unit is a special division of the police force that maintains regulatory control over “morality crimes” like underage drinking and prostitution. Vice detectives basically spend their week attending peep shows and strip clubs, hanging out in bars, searching for prostitutes on Craigslist, and cruising down El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego’s famous hangout for hookers.

One of their duties is checking the permits and licenses in the city’s strip clubs, which is what brought them to Cheetahs back in March. What they’re supposed to do is ask every performer for her driver’s license and permit, cross-check those with a list of permitted dancers, and let everyone get back to pole dancing. What they actually did, according to the lawsuit, was order the strippers to line up against the wall in their dressing room, shout harassing comments, and make the women pose for a series of photographs so that they could “document their tattoos.”

Photo courtesy of Cheetahs Gentlemen's Club

Brittany Murphy is a dancer at Cheetahs who told me that the police raid left her feeling “creeped out” and “humiliated.” Murphy doesn’t have any tattoos, but the officers insisted on taking photos of her anyway. She was wearing the outfit she wears when she dances: two sheer leotards layered on top of each other.

“The flash was going off, and I’m sure they could see my nipples,” she told me. “I mean, I am a stripper, but… there were girls ahead of me who were saying, ‘Do you have to do this?’ and the police officers, like, reached for their gun holsters, in a threatening way. Like, what are you going to do, shoot her if she doesn’t take semi-naked photos?”

Another San Diego club, Exposé, reported similar harassment from the police during an inspection, and now 30 strippers from both clubs are suing the SDPD for violating their Fourth Amendment rights.

For those of you who need a constitutional refresher, the Fourth Amendment is the one that prohibits unreasonable search and seizures. This ensures that you can’t go into private places (like strippers’ dressing rooms) without a warrant. In this case, it compelled the ACLU to pen a letter to Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman expressing “serious questions concerning the legality of the officers’ conduct” and compelled attorney Dan Gilleon to sue for $10,000 in damages from the SDPD.

“These are the same guys that come in and get lap dances undercover,” Gilleon told me. “And now they’re in the back room, leering at them.”

That’s because working on the SDPD’s vice squad is like being a fraternity bro with a gun holster. A former SDPD vice detective, who wished to remain unnamed, told me that “no detective worth his weight in salt asks to go to the vice unit,” since the unit doesn’t deal heavily with investigative crimes. That said, working on the vice squad can be a lot of fun.

“You’re there for 40 or 50 hours a week, and you’re basically partying the whole time. As a vice detective, you’re either drunk or you’re naked.”

The ex-detective told me that the unit is like “the playground for the SDPD.” On staff birthdays, he said that vice detectives visit their favorite strip clubs and buy lap dances, under the guise of visiting the club “undercover,” using a special fund for undercover operations.

“We would get high-end hotel rooms to lure in interent prostitutes, and we’d buy ‘props,’ like bottles of booze and pizza. At the end of the night, after [an arrest], we’d go back to the room and finish the booze and hang out there.”

The SDPD vice squad circa 1925 (observe the wide stance). Photo courtesy of the San Diego History Center

If this sounds like a questionable use of taxpayer dollars, consider that there are plenty of jurisdictions without vice squads that get on just fine. Instead of sending a bunch of detectives to spend their workweek hanging out with prostitutes, police forces without vice squads simply deal with “moral crimes” on a report-by-report basis. So why are San Diegans paying through the nose for the guys on the vice unit to (literally) swing their dicks around?

“I think they try to justify their existence by going out and being heavy-handed in their enforcement of the rules,” said attorney Dan Gilleon, who is prosecuting the Cheetahs lawsuit. “But they’re just partiers, and they don’t want to see their party go away.”

Gilleon added that since filing their lawsuit, the City of San Diego has revoked Cheetahs’ license, which he believes is “retaliation.”

San Diego has already had a fair share of scandal with its police department, between the two SDPD officers arrested earlier this year for sex crimes (Anthony Arevalos was charged with molesting female drivers at traffic stops in downtown San Diego; Christopher Hays for groping multiple women during pat downs). This came just months after the beady-eyed mayor, Bob Filner, was ousted because a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment. Stay classy, San Diego.

The last thing the city needs is a messy lawsuit from a bunch of disgruntled strippers. Most of the girls are primarily annoyed that they lost two hours of wages during the inspection and had photos taken against their will, but the media shitstorm that’s followed the incident makes the plot of Miami Vice look tame.

There are lessons to be learned here, people: There are better ways to spend taxpayer dollars than sending cops to solicit sex on Craigslist, and strippers have constitutional rights too.

In the meantime, I’ll be on the lookout for the SDPD’s Christmas calendar, where I expect those half-nude pictures of the strippers just might turn up.

Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.