This video doesn’t show a dog killing, or a person killing, or a police beating. But in some ways, it’s more appalling than those sorts of videos. In it, you’ll see a “multi-agency” police task force arresting employees at a series of massage parlors in Houston. The businesses were apparently fronts for prostitution. The initial raid was conducted by a paramilitary police team, as you can see from the screen capture. In the video, the head of the task force steps out in full SWAT attire, including a balaclava, as he leads the women out of the building. He keeps the mask on throughout the video.
The women, all but one of whom were immigrants, are led out in handcuffs and leg shackles. One repeatedly struggles with and trips over her shackles on her way to the wagon. They all look terrified. The whole thing is stomach-turning. It’s an ugly, egregious, cock-waving display of power.
At worst, these these women provided a sexual service to willing customers in exchange for money. For that, a completely victimless crime, they get frog-marched in leg shackles on citywide TV.
But under that scenario the cops only look like bullies. There’s another possibility that makes them look thuggish and incompetent. In interviews with the local news, our brave and hooded vice warrior points out that these women could in fact be victims. That is, they may have been in the sex business involuntarily. We can’t know, he says, because they refuse to talk. He says they may fear that if they talk, their families back home will face repercussions.
Now let’s assume this is true. That means this multi-agency task force knew there was a possibility that these businesses were staffed with women who had been forced into prostitution. Aware of that possibility, they still scared the hell out of the women, cuffed and chained them, and—here’s the really galling part—tipped off the local news so it could all be put on TV. The humiliation is bad enough. But if there’s substance to the claim that these women fear retaliation against their families in their native countries, the potential repercussors now have video showing exactly which women were arrested. Back-slaps all around, guys.
And yes, there’s no question that the police tipped off the local news. Four (by my count) different TV stations don’t coincidentally show up at a run-of-the-mill strip mall just as a prostitution raid goes down. And while we’re passing out shame buttons, let’s slap a few on Houston’s local news teams, too. That’s you KHOU, Fox 26, ABC affiliate KTRK, and KPRC. Think about what you’re putting on the air. There’s no law that requires you to accommodate the police every time they want to flex their muscles on the evening news. In one of the videos linked above, the news team shoves a camera into a woman’s face as she’s stepping into the wagon. The reporter then shouts questions at the woman—this just after the reporter points out the possibility that the woman she’s humiliating and zooming in on may be a sex slave.
And about that balaclava. Yes, I realize the cop was probably protecting his identity. Take the hood off, and the next time he’s slabbed over a massage table, the 19-year-old Thai girl rubbing his back might recognize from TV, and decline to offer him extras. Thus ruining his investigation. He may also investigate other vice crimes, like narcotics, in which case revealing his identity could put him at risk. Understood. But here’s an easier way to protect your cover: Don’t call in the news cameras before you make your bust.
Look, I understand that cops enforce the laws, they don’t write them. And in this case it appears that (a) neighboring businesses were complaining, and (b) these massage parlors may have been engaged in sex trafficking. It’s hard to fault them for investigating (although in some of these massage parlor cases, the cops tend to investigate “to completion.”)
But how about some restraint? You’re “apprehending” 105-pound women here. Maybe you leave the ninja gear at home. Considering that you believe these women could be emotionally and/or physically abused, maybe you also do this bust quietly, bring along some social workers, and take the women away in vans. Maybe you have trained counselors talk to the women for a few hours before you give them the Whitey Bulger treatment. Then, once you have a better grasp on the nature of these businesses, you can hold yourself a press conference and bask in praise for keeping Houston safe from prostitutes.
You won’t get to go on TV dressed up in your riot gear that way. But you’ll at least know you’ve done your job with some professionalism—and some humanity.