Wages of Vice

Police find a way to make money by busting massage parlors

Cynthia Hammond dropped by the Tenderloin massage parlor where she once worked about three weeks ago, figuring to retrieve an old pair of bluejeans. Business was slow, so Hammond took time to catch up with one of her former co-workers. Another parlor employee was in the back, tending to a customer.

As Hammond and her ex-colleague watched a Cosby Show rerun on television, eight members of the city's vice squad descended on the Geary Street parlor. For two hours, Hammond says, she and the two parlor employees were detained -- refused permission to even go to the bathroom -- as the cops gathered information and poked about. Ultimately, Hammond and the woman she'd been watching TV with were issued citations for being present in a "house of ill repute." The third woman, the one who had been in the back, was charged with soliciting sex from an undercover officer.

Hammond, who says she's getting out of the sex business, would like to keep the arrest off her record so it isn't dogging her while she looks for other work. That shouldn't be a problem, as long as she's willing to fork over a few hundred dollars -- preferably in the form of a cashier's check or money order made out to the Vice Crimes Division of the San Francisco Police Department.

For the past two years, the vice squad has been quietly collecting tens of thousands of dollars in "restitution" from women arrested in massage parlor raids. With the blessing of District Attorney Terence Hallinan's office, charges against the women are then dropped. Technically, the women agree to enter a diversion program rather than go to court. But unlike other diversion programs -- such as those for drunk drivers or petty drug users -- this program doesn't include anything like mandatory counseling, training, or community service.

Instead, the women are simply required to promise they will not stray again. And, it seems, pay several hundred dollars to the vice squad and a nonprofit organization for the favor of having their charges dropped.

Some sort of diversion program probably is the best method for handling massage parlor arrests. Certainly, none of San Francisco's elected officials wants to clog the courts and jails with women arrested for what many feel -- rightly or wrongly -- is a victimless crime.

But the only discernible impact of this program is that the vice squad is making money by busting massage parlors. And until SF Weekly began asking questions about it, police officials seemed content to keep quiet about their newfound font of cash.

This year alone, police have referred at least 416 cases springing from massage parlor arrests to the DA's Office for prosecution. Most of those arrested -- about three out of four -- were not caught actually soliciting or engaging in sex acts. Instead, like Hammond, they were cited for merely being present at a massage parlor.

In order to escape the criminal charges, the vast majority of those arrested have agreed to enter the diversion program and pay the vice squad amounts ranging from $100 to $350. The fines presumably are intended to reimburse the Police Department for the overtime its vice officers clock while conducting their investigations.

But in response to repeated requests over the past two months, San Francisco police officials refused to answer SF Weekly's queries about how much money they have collected, or provide an accounting of what is done with the funds.

And until asked by SF Weekly, the city Treasurer's Office, the city's Controller, and the City Attorney's Office said they were not aware of the Police Department's practice. City Treasurer Susan Leal says she didn't have any idea the Police Department is accepting cashier's checks made out directly to the vice squad, and will now look into how the money is being handled.

Harold Guetersloh of the city Controller's Office was also taken by surprise when told of the process, and says he is now asking the police to explain their procedures.

Police officials, and a spokesman for Hallinan's office, defend the practice, saying it is a perfectly legal tactic designed to encourage massage industry workers to pursue another line of work. "Our ultimate goal would be to put the houses out of business," says DA spokesman John Shanley. "Hopefully, by nickel-and-diming the women, we can do that."

But some of those who have been arrested, and several lawyers who handle their cases, say the practice is little more than a legal shakedown. Massage parlor workers, they say, are being arrested on dubious charges and then allowed to buy their way out of trouble. Many of those women return to work to cover the fines. It is a cycle that accomplishes little more than feeding the vice squad's secret kitty.

"It's official extortion," says Katya Komisaryk, an attorney who represents many of the arrested women. "Sex workers are paying to have their cases dropped."

The practice seems to have had little impact so far on the massage industry. The number of licensed massage parlors in San Francisco has actually increased during each of the past two years.

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