Wages of Vice

Police find a way to make money by busting massage parlors

But whether the arrests are valid or not doesn't matter if the women -- fearful of being tagged with a criminal record -- agree to enter the CCDS diversion program.

At least that's what the vice squad counts on in order to make money.

Not long after a woman is arrested in a massage parlor raid, she receives a letter from Hallinan's office. It explains that, rather than going to court, she can clear up the matter and avoid a criminal conviction by agreeing to enter the CCDS diversion program.

The woman calls CCDS and schedules an appointment. She shows up -- with or without a lawyer -- and squares off with a representative from the vice squad, usually a sergeant. Typically, CCDS President Bateman serves as arbitrator for the meeting.

The vice officer reads the arrest report from the case. Then the two sides hash out how much the woman will pay to keep her case out of court.

First, CCDS gets its cut, which is not negotiable. The nonprofit agency expects to be paid $125 by women charged only with being present at a massage parlor, and $250 by a woman charged with actual solicitation.

Then it's the vice unit's turn, and the haggling begins.
According to lawyer Katya Komisaryk, the police generally open negotiations by demanding $1,000, divided among all the women arrested in a given raid. For instance, if only two women were arrested, they're hit up for $500 apiece. But the prices are negotiable, she says, and typically each woman pays between $100 and $350.

Once the deal is struck, the woman signs a form agreeing to the payments. Formally labeled a "Directive of the Hearing Officer," the form lays out the terms of the woman's diversion deal. Typically, it does not include any sort of counseling or reporting, like many other diversion programs.

Mainly, the form consists of specific directions on how the woman should pay off the negotiated fines. The form specifically states that payment will be "in the form of a Cashier's Check made payable to: San Francisco Police Department Vice Crimes Section." The form further states that the check will be "delivered to Sgt. Frank Palma at 850 Bryant" within 10 days. (When contacted by SF Weekly, Palma declined to discuss the process, referring questions to his superiors.)

Jennifer Nelson, a massage parlor worker who recently went through the process, says she felt she had little choice but to agree to the payments. Nelson wound up turning over a cashier's check for $250 to the police.

"It seems that both the cop and the [arbitrator] knew that this game was about extortion. And they know we have little choice but to play that game," she says. "They're banking on the fear that we women have."

Deputy District Attorney Reve Bautista, who is responsible for diverting the massage parlor cases to CCDS, disagrees with that characterization. The fines, she says, are a legal and proper way to reimburse the costs of conducting massage parlor investigations. State law, she notes, allows any county whose officer or agent arrests a person to recover a "criminal justice fee."

One of the laws the DA's Office cited to justify the fees, however, states that such "criminal justice fees" can be recovered from a "convicted criminal." Women diverted through CCDS have not been convicted of anything. In fact, that's the very prospect they are trying to avoid.

Bautista acknowledges that, as far as she knows, San Francisco is the only city in California that is allowing cops to collect money from busted massage parlor workers. DA spokesman Shanley says the SFPD probably got the idea to collect the fees from a similar program begun three years ago that fines johns arrested for soliciting sex.

Shanley defends the policy, saying taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for the overtime cops put in conducting their investigations. Police officials, however, would not explain why investigations of massage parlors -- presumably part of the vice squad's job -- seem to require a tremendous amount of overtime.

Ann Amnnix, director of the Police Permit Bureau, argues that "it takes a lot of money to run these investigations on massage parlors," and the fines are "a way for the Police Department to recoup their costs in busting the women."

Although the diversion program offers no mandatory counseling -- or any sort of "program," really -- CCDS's Bateman contends the fines themselves are enough to drive some women out of the business. "The dollar speaks big," he says. "There's something to be said about coughing up a buck. Whether it's a traffic ticket, not putting on your seat belt, or double-parking."

Critics, however, say that police have effectively created a money mill that arrests women, puts the touch on them, and sends them on their way.

Naomi Akers, director of PROMISE, an organization that helps prostitutes leave the business and find other work, says levying fines solves no problems. "It's abusive to say, 'Well, it costs so much money to stake out a case against massage parlors so we're going to offset the cost and charge them,' " she says. "It's exploitative because these women are then going to have to prostitute themselves more to pay off their fines."

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