Other cases were dismissed because of nuances around the transactions – that the undercover officer was posing as a middle-person and not the actual sex worker made prosecution more difficult
The design and execution of the operations is the work of the Seattle Police Department. But because the cases are now in court, the Department deferred comment to the City Attorney’s Office.
“It’s in line with the City Attorney’s overall strategy of going after sex buyers and hitting the demand side of that equation versus the supply side,” said Chief of the Criminal Division Kelly Harris. “As you can see, they’re pretty effective.”
But that first sting did not end up being as effective as the City Attorney’s Office wanted. Harris said the mistakes will not be repeated with the Barbie’s Dollhouse operation, but public defenders nevertheless question the value of repeating the operation. “It’s a waste of the court’s time and it’s a waste of taxpayers’ resources,” said public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy.
Euro Spa elicited 94 guilty pleas – just under half of those charged – generally costing the men between $1,000 and $3,000 in fines. Thirty-eight agreed to “dispositional continuance” – meaning if they fulfill certain requirements, like going through a program for men who’ve been caught buying sex, the offense would be stricken from their record.
Meanwhile, 61 cases were dismissed, either by the judge or a jury declining to pass down a guilty verdict. That is a high number even by the accounting of the City Attorney’s Office. Most were defendants who could not afford the fines associated with pleading guilty, said Thomas-Kennedy.
The prosecution had issues proving whether or not the men knew what they were agreeing to, especially when language barriers were an issue. There were also problems with a lack of witnesses. One SPD employee involved was Det. Salvatore Ditusa, who was placed on leave after using a racial epithet while working off-duty and then left the department shortly thereafter. That struck him from its list of witnesses, although Harris downplayed his importance.
But Harris said that for the Barbie’s Dollhouse operation, they expected to have more success, in part because they were more discriminating in which cases they filed. They also had tightened up the operation, adding a private livestream of the interactions to include more firsthand witnesses.
Public defender Thomas-Kennedy isn’t so sure. She already doubts the effectiveness of the stings in deterring prostitution and doesn’t feel they’re worth the time she and the system spend on each case. On one occasion, she was in trial for four days.
She writes frequently on her own blog and for outlets like the Huffington Post and the Establishment and founded the Safe Night Access Project in Seattle to protect sex workers
“To me it seemed like, ‘Okay are we done with this now?” she said of resolving the Euro Spa cases. “Because you can’t secure a conviction and it just seemed pretty pointless at this point.” When the Barbie’s Dollhouse cases started arriving, “I was surprised, because if they can’t get a conviction on Euro Spa and it’s all the same players, what is different about this one? And to me it doesn’t seem like it is different.”
Other critics say the approach fails to target actual human traffickers and instead serves to move the industry further underground, where it’s less safe.
In New York, she said, she was exploited under a pimp in a way “that was not empowering.” But in Washington State, she works for herself.
The difference, she says, is the very resource that the Seattle police exploited in setting up their raid: Backpage. And that, say proponents, is creating a big problem for sex workers.