Picking and choosing the women who have value

Sounds like a legitimate question.

Imagine, for moment, says Jim Kelly, executive director of Covenant House New Orleans, that the NOPD has reliable information that a James Beard Award-winning restaurant in New Orleans has a private upstairs room where, after the rack of lamb and the Dom Perignon and the bread pudding soufflé, diners excuse themselves to a private upper room for a nightcap with paid escorts offering sex and drugs.

“If any other industry in the city were allowed to get away with this, there would be public outrage,” Kelly said. “That’s the craziness.”

Kelly is hoping the recent three-part series, based on a yearlong investigation by The Times-Picayune of sex trafficking on Bourbon Street, will open eyes to a reality hidden in plain sight.

The series has plenty of details that are impossible to refute or wish away. One of the most compelling stories is a report by a couple – actually, undercover agents with the state’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control – who in October 2015 saw an NOPD sergeant, in full uniform, caressing “a slim brunette dancer” at the Temptations strip club.

The undercover couple had been told by another dancer that they could “have a good time” in the club’s private VIP room, but the couple told the dancer they were unnerved by the presence of the police officer. Weren’t they taking a risk they might get arrested?

The dancer told the couple not to worry because the police sergeant was a “regular” at Temptations and didn’t enforce laws against prostitution or drug use. She said the officer came in all the time to mingle with the girls.

The ATC agents dutifully filed their report, which apparently went into File 13. When the T-P reporters gave the NOPD the undercover agents’ report, the public integrity bureau opened an investigation. An NOPD spokesman told the T-P “the behavior attributed to an unnamed NOPD sergeant is unacceptable and likely violates regulations.”

As it turns out, the investigation hit a dead end “due to lack of information, lack of video surveillance, lack of witnesses and limited information in the redacted ATC report.”

In other words, don’t call us. We’ll call you.

Kelly muses over the mysterious, non-outcome. How difficult would it have been, he says, to find out how many NOPD sergeants were on Bourbon Street duty on that specific night and then have the undercover agents pick him out of a photo lineup?

It’s enough to remind us of “Casablanca,” where Captain Renault peers into the casino and says defiantly that he must close the club: “I’m shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here.”

That’s when the croupier walks up with a pile of cash and hands it to Renault: “Your winnings, sir.”

“OK, thank you very much,” Renault says softly.

“Everybody out at once!” Renault shouts.

The question Kelly has is: Why?

The entertainment and hospitality industries have come under fire recently for sexual harassment and abuse of women. Why not the sex trafficking business on Bourbon Street?

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be outraged about what’s happened to women in the restaurant business or the entertainment industry, but shouldn’t the outrage be just as great when it comes to the sex industry and the human beings who are being trafficked?” Kelly said. “It’s just amazing to me we don’t have the same outrage. We have a public integrity unit that couldn’t find out who the sergeant was.

“We’ve come so far when it comes to child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and rape. Why don’t we realize that’s what’s taking place in the sex industry?”

Maybe it’s because those women are less valuable to society than the others.

The New Orleans City Council last week directed the City Planning Commission to hold hearings on a proposed limit on the number of strip clubs in the French Quarter, which might lead to a hard cap of 13. No one knows what that outcome will be.

Debbie Shinskie, respect life coordinator for the Archdiocese of New Orleans who regularly walks Bourbon Street with other members of the archdiocesan Human Trafficking Committee to reach out to female dancers, says she cannot understand the double standard of enforcement.

“If you’re serving bad food in a restaurant that leads to food poisoning, you would be closed down the next day,” Shinskie said. “But if you’re mistreating human beings, we turn the other way.”

Kelly says law enforcement has a bogus excuse for not enforcing the law. A state law prohibiting dancers under the age of 21 to perform nude in strip clubs has been challenged in court, but the city ordinance remains in full force. “It has never been challenged and has never been enjoined,” Kelly said.

Ray Palazzolo, the senior general manager of Temptations and three other Bourbon Street clubs, told the T-P the pimp and prostitution problem on Bourbon Street is the worst he’s seen in his 20 years as a manager.

“What a comment,” Kelly said.

It was in Palazzolo’s club, Temptations, that 19-year-old Jasilas Wright was dancing when she was recruited by a pimp. She later was killed when she jumped out of moving car on I-10 in Metairie and was run over by other vehicles. Wright was trying to break free from a pimp who was taking her to Texas to continue trafficking her.

Kelly said in the last year, Covenant House has sheltered at least 90 human trafficking victims. There may be others who have chosen not to come forward, “so we know that number is greater than 90.”
“Pimps are preying on the young and the vulnerable,” Kelly said. “This is modern slavery. This is human trafficking.”

The police force being undermanned is an excuse, Kelly said. Clubs could be charged a fee that could be used to pay for undercover police or special inspectors. “That’s an easy fix,” Kelly said.

Then there are other remedies, such as unleashing city health, tax and building inspectors to look for code violations.

“Law enforcement needs to take the lead, but there are also health inspectors and building inspectors and tax inspectors,” Kelly said. “Are we using all of our resources to make sure the most young and vulnerable are not falling in with human trafficking or being used for the commercial sex industry? Some of the clubs reported less revenue than the rent they pay. You can send in inspectors to look at their revenues.”

Really, it comes down to one question: Who cares?

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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