This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Prostitution stings can be a tricky business, no pun intended.
Undercover police officers have always had to walk a fine line between showing interest in what the suspect might be offering and straying into setting the terms of the transaction.
Even then, what determines an offer can be open to interpretation. Prostitution busts are operations with potential for a lot of gray area – made ever more murky by the ever more creative ways prostitutes are seeking to out cops.
Lakewood police want to put the kabosh on such strategies by making it a crime to attempt to detect the identity of a police officer.
Assistant Police Chief Michael Zaro explains that prostitutes often try to sort out cops from “legitimate” customers by asking for intimate contact before they begins negotiating.
Some cops have hygienic and moral objections to touching hookers’ privates or vice versa. Zaro wants to relieve them of the dilemma of having to do something objectionable or risk blowing their cover.
Thank heaven that Lakewood is debating what officers should not have to do to catch prostitutes. Better that than the controversies that have rocked some communities after they discovered just how much contact police were willing to allow in their “pursuit” of prostitution.
But there are problems with Zaro’s proposal, and some Lakewood City Council members have rightfully questioned whether it goes overboard.
The legislation would not only make it illegal for someone to expose herself, touch someone else or ask someone to touch her. It also would outlaw the question, “Are you a cop?”
It’s that last part that is causing some heartburn for council members and us. It ventures into regulating pure speech rather than conduct.
Make no mistake, speech is not completely immune from government restriction. When a prostitute names her price, the utterance can land her in jail. But that’s because she has proposed a crime.
Asking whether a cop is a cop is not a criminal act. In many situations, it’s actually a smart question.
Cities should beware of overreaching in their attempts to fight crime. The law already affords undercover officers enormous powers of deception. Trying to better that advantage by essentially criminalizing suspicion goes too far.