A routine prostitution case in Clark County District Court raised questions Friday about the rules of engagement for Vancouver police officers conducting prostitution stings.
A jury needed less than 20 minutes to convict 29-year-old Tierra Salmon of Portland of misdemeanor prostitution. The conviction resulted from an undercover sting operation instigated last April by a Vancouver police detective, who went undercover as a john and met Salmon at a local motel.
It wasn’t the charge against Salmon that raised eyebrows.
In the daylong trial in Judge Vernon Schreiber’s courtroom, Vancouver police Detective Jeremy Free admitted on the stand to exposing himself to the woman upon her request. She touched his genitals and he fondled her breast, he said.
On cue from Free, officers in a separate motel room who were watching via a video camera came inside the room to detain and question the woman. Salmon was then cited on suspicion of prostitution.
Free testified that during the April 23 incident, it was rare to go as far as he did, but he hinted that other undercover officers have engaged in physical contact with prostitutes. He also said it’s crucial in an investigation to play the part.
“I’ve encountered other officers grabbing breasts,” he said.
Such contact has Vancouver police administrators considering how to respond. When reached Friday afternoon, Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said the department has no official policy dealing with physical or sexual contact between officers and suspects because the department’s involvement in these type of stings is new. The police department only started participating in prostitution stings during the last couple years.
Kapp said administrators are now reviewing policy.
“We’re obviously looking at that,” she said. “Having more frequent participation in these stings, that’s prompted us to look at our policy.”
Free was not a subject of any internal review, she added.
The detective’s testimony against Salmon was enough to earn the prosecution a conviction.
At trial, Free was one of two witnesses called by Vancouver Assistant City Attorney Todd George. The prosecutor also called a Tigard police detective involved in the sting who testified to witnessing the encounter on a video camera in the next room.
Salmon opted not to testify. Her defense attorney, Luka Vitasovic, chose not to pursue an entrapment theory, saying outside of court that to show entrapment, you would have to prove that police initiated the conduct. But Salmon had posted the online advertisement.
Instead, Vitasovic tried to argue that despite the physical contact between the two, there was never outright agreement of money for sex or a sex act.
As part of a sting to rescue underage prostitutes, Free had responded to an online advertisement placed by Salmon. The photo in the ad was not of Salmon, but of an apparently underage girl going by the name, “Josephine.” It simply said $200 per hour, the six-member jury heard at trial.
Over the phone, Free and Salmon agreed to meet at a Cascade Park motel. Free asked other officers who are part of Innocence Lost Task Force, a FBI operation aimed at rescuing child prostitutes, to join him in the sting.
When Salmon came to the motel room, Free testified that she sat on the bed next to him. He asked what type of activity $200 would pay for, and she listed off sex acts that she didn’t do, also mentioning an act that she did do.
She asked him if he was a police officer. He said no. Salmon told him to prove it by exposing himself, Free testified.
“Why did you comply?,” George asked.
“Because I was still in undercover mode,” the detective said.
George asked him the duration of this encounter and Free estimated it at “10 or 15 seconds.” Then, he said he cued the other officers to enter the room.
In cross-examination, Vitasovic grilled the eight-year veteran with the Vancouver Police Department on whether he had ever received official training in prostitution stings. He said no.
The defense attorney also pointed out that the encounter hadn’t been taped, but was only part of a live video feed.
Vitasovic asked Free whether detectives usually taped other stings.
“After this case, yes, we’ve had them recorded,” he said.
After Vitasovic’s questioning, George asked the detective one more question:
“Was that (exposing himself) something you were wanting to do?
“No, not at all,” Free said.
After receiving the case just after 2 p.m., the jury of one man and five women convicted Salmon at about 2:30 p.m.
The judge sentenced her to 35 days of community service, but scheduled a review hearing April 8, at which time he said he may change his sentence depending on how amenable she’s been to a court-ordered women’s trauma support program.
Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or firstname.lastname@example.org.