Volume 78 - Number 39 / March 4 -10, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Patrick Hedlund

The Feb. 21 protest in Sheridan Square drew 150 people.

Arrests at porn-video shops are obscene, gays say

By Duncan Osborne

With speakers recalling the 1969 Stonewall riots that launched the modern gay rights movement, roughly 150 people recently gathered at the site of those riots to protest the prostitution arrests of gay and bisexual men in Manhattan porn shops.

“We’re here today as a community to say we are tired of being profiled,” said City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who spoke at the Sat., Feb. 21, rally held at Sheridan Square in the West Village. “Let’s be clear about why we’re here — it is because our sexuality is under attack.”

Police arrested at least 30 men on prostitution charges in six porn shops in 2008, and those busts are widely seen as false arrests in the gay community. The city then cited those arrests in nuisance-abatement lawsuits it brought against five of the six shops, seeking to close the businesses.

Several of the men arrested said they were busted after agreeing to leave the establishments to have consensual sex with undercover cops, and the circumstances of numerous other arrests raise significant questions about their validity.
Altogether, police have busted at least 52 men in at least eight shops dating back to 2004, and sued seven of those eight businesses. Two of the seven shops closed, while the others stayed open under agreements with the city that restricted their operations.

“Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly, let me remind you that at Stonewall we learned how to fight back,” said José Lugaro, representing the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

A number of the 15 speakers at the rally recalled the Stonewall riots, which began when police raided the gay bar. That bar, in a new incarnation, operates at the same location in Sheridan Square and was within sight of the rally.

The 1969 raid was conducted by a unit of the Police Department’s Public Morals Squad. Many of the 2008 arrests were made by the Manhattan South Vice Enforcement Squad, the new name for the old Public Morals unit.

“Our community — the trannies and the drag queens — rose up and said enough,” said Robert Pinter, who was one of the 30 men busted last year. “It’s time for our community to rise up again and say enough.”

The arrests have sparked outrage in the gay community. In a Feb. 11 meeting between Brian Conroy, deputy chief of the Police Department’s Vice Enforcement Division, and members of the Coalition to Stop the Arrests, which organized the rally, activists were told that police had paused in their efforts.

In January, the department’s Legal Unit, which brought four of the five lawsuits, withdrew a suit against Unicorn DVD, a porn shop at Eighth Ave. and 27th St. where vice officers made five arrests last year.

The coalition has demanded an end to the arrests and prosecution of the men who were busted, as well as an investigation into the arrests.

The rally also showcased clear dissatisfaction with Mayor Bloomberg, who is seeking another term this November. The crowd repeatedly chanted, “No third term” and booed when the mayor’s name was mentioned. About two-dozen people previously rallied in front of Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse on Valentine’s Day to protest the arrests.

“If the mayor can’t or won’t put an end to these abuses, then we’ll have to get a new mayor,” Andy Velez, a coalition member, told the crowd.

Also speaking were Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Reverend Pat Bumgardner, of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, and elected officials or their representatives.

As evidence has mounted of a pattern of these questionable arrests, one of the 12 arrests at an East Village porn shop reportedly may become the subject of a Police Department Internal Affairs Bureau investigation.

Another 27-year-old man who was arrested for prostitution in a Chelsea porn shop last year reported that police employed a tactic that mirrored the one used in the East Village porn shop where cops made the dozen arrests.

According to the man, an undercover officer first got him to agree to consensual sex outside the shop, then mentioned paying him right before he was arrested.

The man was in Chelsea’s Unicorn DVD last Sept. 28 when he was approached by an attractive “Chinese” man who was complimentary and charming.

“I seen him, we spoke,” said the 27-year-old, who asked that his name not be used. “He was a nice-looking guy.”

The 30 men who were arrested last year described two of the undercover officers as Asian-American. Both are members of the Manhattan South Vice Enforcement Squad. One of them, identified only by the badge number 3371 in court records, is tattooed on his arms and neck.

The 27-year-old’s arresting officer, 3371, started with a general conversation that turned to sex.

“I figured we were just going to talk,” the man said. “Then we got into some sexual stuff... . He asked me what do I do.”

The two left the store to have sex and then, once outside, 3371 mentioned paying the man $80 for sex. The criminal complaint in the case states the man agreed, but the man told this reporter he never responded.

“We got like two steps, and I was like bum rushed,” he said.

That technique is identical to the one described by another man who was busted in Unicorn DVD and by men arrested for prostitution in 2008 in Blue Door Video, a porn shop on First Ave. in the East Village.

The Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement and the Police Department’s Legal Unit separately brought nuisance-abatement lawsuits in 2008 and 2009 that in combination targeted five of the six porn shops, seeking to close them.

The records in the lawsuit brought against Blue Door Video are the most detailed of any of the five suits and include extended reports by the arresting officers.

Officers in that suit, including 3371 and another, 31107, claim it was they who first mentioned money, that they often first approached the men they eventually arrested, and that they suggested leaving the store to have sex in an apartment or car outside the store.

Officer 31107 is the second Asian-American undercover officer mentioned by men who have been busted.

Officer 3371 made six of the 12 arrests in Blue Door and three of the five arrests in Unicorn DVD. Officer 31107 made three of the 12 arrests in Blue Door Video and one of the five in Unicorn DVD.

The 12 men arrested in Blue Door Video pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and received minor sentences. Four of the five men busted in Unicorn DVD are fighting the charges against them.

The Police Department Legal Unit sued Unicorn DVD on Jan. 14 seeking to close the store, then, without explanation, withdrew that case on Jan. 27. Coalition to Stop the Arrests has suggested it was because of gay community anger.

Officer 3371 made the two arrests in the DVD & Video Center, a porn shop on W. 35th St. near Seventh Ave., that was sued by the city last year. That shop closed, and the disposition of those arrests is unknown.

Officer 3371 also made at least one arrest in Rainbow Station at Eighth Ave. and 21st St. That shop has not been sued by the city.

Officer 31107 may be the subject of an investigation by the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

Robert Pinter was visited by two I.A.B. detectives at his East Village apartment the evening of Feb. 15. The officers told him that the “differences” between his account of his arrest in press reports and that given by his arresting officer had prompted the inquiry.

Pinter declined to speak with them without an attorney present, but he did tell the officers: “I will say this. I am not a prostitute. I was in there shopping for a DVD.”

The two officers told him: “When you tell us your version, that will be the beginning of an investigation into just your arrest.”

Pinter has hired an attorney in an effort to vacate his guilty plea, and the two I.A.B. officers asked him if he was going to sue the city.

In an e-mail, the Police Department press office confirmed that the I.A.B. “is investigating [Pinter’s] allegations of police misconduct in his arrest.”

The details regarding the arrests are what have raised questions over their legitimacy.

Eight of the 12 men arrested at Blue Door Video were 42 or older, unlikely ages for prostitutes, and none appears to have a prior record, judging by the light sentences they were given. Two of the 12 were from other states — California and Virginia — and another two, a couple, were apparently from Europe. To credit the reports from the arresting officers, one would have to believe that these four traveled significant distances to earn small amounts of cash as prostitutes.

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