Did local vice cops cross the line?
Seattle Times | October 11, 2005
By Jennifer Sullivan and Christopher Schwarzen
Lynnwood police concede they engaged in "rarely used" tactics during an undercover investigation into a suspected prostitution ring.
Those tactics, which included officers allowing prostitutes to masturbate them in exchange for cash, have raised questions among law-enforcement officials, legal experts and the Snohomish County Prosecutor's Office.
Lynnwood police Cmdr. Paul Watkins said he spent a great deal of time justifying the officers' actions to prosecutors to prove that the officers themselves weren't breaking the law. Snohomish County prosecutors on Monday filed a felony charge of promotion of prostitution against Myong Pang, 42, of University Place, Pierce County. On Sept. 30, they filed a misdemeanor prostitution charge against Myong Chow, 40, of Tacoma.
"The officers didn't cross that line of engaging in intercourse or oral sex," Watkins said. "I advised them no oral sex, no intercourse, that's not going to happen. That's the understood policy. There's no written policy regarding this."
But other law-enforcement officials who weren't involved in the investigation say allowing officers to engage in such acts, even in an undercover investigation, goes too far. The usual tactic, they say, calls for an arrest once someone agrees to perform a sexual act in exchange for money.
Seattle and King County police, for example, do not allow undercover officers to have sexual contact with prostitutes.
And at least one legal expert thinks prosecutors will have a tough time convicting the suspects as a result of the officers' behavior.
Prosecutor has questions
Mark Roe, Snohomish County's chief criminal deputy prosecutor, said that when he first learned about the case, he had serious questions about the officers' actions. He plans to meet with the officers and their supervisors and said if he finds the actions were questionable, the criminal charges could be amended or dismissed.
"This business had been a continual problem and they needed to do something about that," Roe said. "How they chose to do that and whether they went too far is something I'll discuss when I sit down with them and not with the press."
The investigation that shut down the Classic Body Tonic Spa, 6508 196th St. S.W., began in April, about a month after the shop opened, Watkins said.
Charging papers provide the following account:
On April 27, an officer entered the shop and paid $60 for and received a full "body shampoo," which included genital and anal touching. The officer returned two other times for massages that also included masturbation — one session with two prostitutes — and again paid for the service.
A second officer also received a massage and was masturbated, according to charging papers.
The Seattle Times is not naming the officers because they work undercover.
On May 13, Chow and Pang, the women who allegedly had contact with the first officer, were arrested when a warrant was served at the business. The woman who met with the second officer has not been charged, Watkins said.
Watkins said the officers' tactics in shutting down the Classic Body Tonic Spa differed from those used in prostitution arrests on Highway 99 or at Scriber Lake Park, two high-prostitution areas. In those cases, the undercover officer approaches a suspect, and when a verbal agreement is reached, the arrest is made.
But Watkins said that "in order to shut the business down you want to go for the bigger fish rather than show it is just one lonely employee in there doing what she shouldn't do."
But others in law enforcement were surprised by the officers' actions.
"I can tell you personally, as a vice cop ... prostitution was something I worked, and I never accepted an offer, nor did anyone I know of that I worked with then. I also have no knowledge of any of our vice officers agreeing to sex during investigations," said King County sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart. "The prostitution law is you make an offer and they agree, sex for money or any other value, like a ride, and you can make an arrest."
Rich Pruitt, spokesman for the Seattle Police Department, said officers have a written policy that prohibits sexual contact during such investigations. "Our officers are not allowed to do that," he said "On a professional basis, it's just not safe."
Everett Police Chief Jim Scharf said his department's vice officers follow a similar policy.
"We don't allow any sexual contact," he said. "It's verboten."
John Strait, a Seattle University law professor, said what the Lynnwood officers did is not illegal in an undercover investigation, but he calls it "very bad policy."
"This is the equivalent of [undercover] cops doing drugs," Strait said. "I think very few narcotics officers toot crack, shoot heroin, do coke and marijuana. Here they are doing the same thing they are busting for."
University of Washington criminal-law professor John Junker agreed that it is bad form for police officers to engage in any sexual behavior with a person being investigated for such behavior.
"It's unconscionable for the officers to actually engage in sexual contact with these women when it's being done for purposes of simply arresting them," Junker said. "Every cop who's ever worked vice knows that. I would think most departments prohibit it."
Junker said that because of the officers' actions he would be "astonished" if the women were prosecuted.
"Either the prosecutor or the defense counsel is going to have to bring out that the officers had sex, and I would think the jury is going to be outraged," Junker said. "I'm outraged."
Watkins says the tactics used during the investigation did not violate department policies.
"We have a very ethical police department," he said. "This does not violate the ethical standards of our department."
Last modified October 11, 2005