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Mpls. police's prostitution stings criticized

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The Minneapolis Police Department plans a review of practices used in undercover prostitution stings after three criminal cases were dismissed in the last month because male officers had sexual contact with the subject during the sting.

The department is discontinuing the stings until the review is complete, according to city spokesperson Matt Lindstrom. He said the department is considering alternatives to using undercover cops in prostitution investigations, which could include civil enforcement through the city's new massage ordinance. 

Police spokesperson Scott Seroka said none of the three undercover officers involved in the three cases is personally being investigated. 

"The Minneapolis Police Department is taking immediate action by reviewing these cases," Police Chief Janeé Harteau said in a statement. "We are no longer using undercover operations to investigate suspected prostitution in massage businesses."

One of the prostitution cases was dismissed by a Hennepin County District Court judge on Aug. 7, according to Minneapolis attorney Jeff Dean, who represented the defendant in the case. In that incident, the officer negotiated the price for sexual conduct with the woman only after she was touching his genitals. 

"This behavior is completely unnecessary to the evidence gathering process, to prove prostitution police need only show that there's an agreement of sex for money," Dean said. "The judge ruled that the police officer's sexual conduct was outrageous and violated due process and that the charges should therefore be dismissed." 

Dean represented the same woman in another case which was dismissed by Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal on Monday. 

"We need to balance the need for accountability, the needs of our community and our commitment to doing justice," Segal said in a statement Thursday. 

Dean said the Minneapolis Police Department should have revised their policies following a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling six years ago. 

In a 2009  decision the court decided that the officer did not need to engage in sexual conduct with the woman in order to gather enough evidence to prosecute her. 

"This was a published decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals putting the police department on notice that this type of conduct is outrageous, unconstitutional and must be stopped," Dean said. "Yet the very same police department, even with that clear notice, continues to engage in the same outrageous conduct." 

Another case involving a different woman represented by a Hennepin County public defender was dismissed in court Tuesday. 

The undercover officer in that case talked with a masseuse about the weather and his broken hand during the December sting, according to a transcript of the recording. Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty said the officer was naked and the masseuse was topless during the massage. The transcript shows that the officer repeatedly commented on the masseuse's body and then asks if he should "roll over." 

Moriarty said the masseuse then touched the officer's genitals, after which moans can be heard on the recording until other officers raided the studio.

"The crime of prostitution is actually completed when there's an agreement to engage in sexual contact for money — there does not have to be any contact," Moriarty said.

The officer's attorney later said he hadn't thought the agreement for sexual contact was enough to make a criminal case. 

"If undercover women can make cases in undercover work without any kind of sexual contact, why is it that men seem to have this kind of issue?" Moriarty said.   

The Hennepin County public defender notes Minnesota has led the country in providing so-called "safe harbors" for underage victims of prostitution. 

"They're really focused on treating young women as traumatized victims if they're under 18, but if they become 18 all of the sudden they're treated as criminals," Moriarty said. 

Minnesota-based nonprofit Breaking Free advocates for victims of human trafficking and street prostitution. Interim Executive Director Emily Baldwin expressed concern about the cases in a statement on Thursday, saying that a very few officers may "inappropriately abuse their power to harm rather than serve women escaping sex trafficking."