Minneapolis Cop at Center of Prostitution Sting Controversy Has Been the Subject of Several Misconduct Complaints
By Andy Mannix | 08/20/15
Last December, after responding to an ad on Backpage.com, Steven Lecy walked into a small massage studio in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood. He put $140 on the table and took off his clothes.
The masseuse, Terian Ann Jackson, stripped down to her underwear and began rubbing him. After commenting on Jackson’s “incredible” body, Lecy let her straddle him and rub his genitals.
What Jackson didn’t know was that Lecy was an undercover cop, wired for sound, with fellow officers outside waiting to make an arrest. Yet Lecy would make them wait — the massage lasted more than 20 minutes before he signaled for his colleagues to enter.
Nine months later, Lecy’s actions during the sting have become the source of controversy. On Tuesday, a Hennepin County judge dismissed all charges against Jackson, citing “outrageous government conduct” on part of Lecy. Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty, whose office represented Jackson, said Lecy went over the line by letting the massage go on for so long, calling his behavior “gratuitous and disgusting.”
“I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on here — that there is sexual contact,” she said. “This is not the behavior I think the citizens of Minneapolis want their police officers to engage in.”
In light of the incident, the department said Wednesday that it’s re-examining its policies on prostitution investigations. Until that review is complete, the department has suspended all undercover prostitution operations.
But this isn’t the first time Lecy — a decorated officer who’s appeared on the television show “Cops” — has been accused of misconduct. A month before he walked into the massage studio, the city of Minneapolis settled out of court in a federal lawsuit alleging Lecy threw a resident of Little Earth, the subsidized housing complex for Native Americans, to the ground by his hair and made racist comments. In February, the city settled another federal suit involving Lecy — this one alleging that he and other officers brutally beat a south Minneapolis man on New Year’s Day.
A third federal suit is pending, alleging that Lecy helped violently beat a man during a drug arrest in 2013. Last week, the city tentatively agreed to a settlement in that case as well.
A History of Complaints
In the past year, the city has paid out about $50,000 total settling cases involving Lecy — which is not the same as an admission of guilt. The third settlement is awaiting approval from the City Council and the mayor.
According to the federal complaints:
- Around 4 a.m. on New Year’s 2010, Lecy and several other officers showed up at Michael Burnett’s house in South Minneapolis, responding to a call of shots fired in the area. Burnett was holding a small gathering. He answered the door and Lecy, without provocation, began punching him with a closed fist. He then shot Burnett with a TASER “four to six times.” One of the officers hit Burnett in the face with the butt end of a flashlight. They pushed him down a flight of stairs, then one of stepped on his head, pushing his face into the ground. Burnett suffered several injuries, including an orbital skull fracture that led to vision loss in one eye. He was booked for disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice.
- In 2013, Lecy responded to a report of a man wielding a knife at Little Earth. During the search, he got into an altercation with resident Michael Ofor. He threw Ofor to the ground by his hair, held his head against the ground and said, “All you Native Americans are nothing but fucking animals.” (Lecy denied making the derogatory comment in a deposition for the case, and said Ofor was uncooperative during the arrest). Prosecutors charged Ofor with several counts of obstructing justice, which were later dismissed. He was convicted on one count of congregating on streets and sidewalks.
- In the third incident, Lecy and two other officers beat up a man named Louis Tate during a narcotics pat down. While Tate was on the ground, Lecy “repeatedly and violently punched [him] in the face,” the suit alleges. The officers brought Tate to the police station, but after seeing his injuries a nurse said he needed to go to the hospital before he could be booked. At that point, Lecy “grabbed [Tate] by the arms and told [him] that he was going to make sure [he] spent the rest of his life in prison.” Tate was found guilty of third-degree drug possession, a felony; another charge for second-degree possession was dropped.
When asked for comment on these allegations against Lecy, the city responded by reiterating in a written statement from Chief Janee Harteau that the department is “no longer using undercover operations to investigate suspected prostitution in massage businesses.”
Beyond the Call of Duty?
Moriarty and her staff were “horrified” when they first listened to the recording of Lecy’s massage investigation, she said. Slapping sounds and moaning can be heard in the audio of the incident. Lecy told Jackson she was “incredibly beautiful” and had an “incredible ass.”
According to the charges against Jackson, Lecy had asked asked for a “body-to-body” massage, which “entails the person giving the massage to rub their nude body on the person receiving the massage.” At some point in the massage, Jackson “began to rub the officer’s genitals while lying across him and rubbing her breasts onto his chest and pelvic area,” the complaint says.
“Wow, that’s awesome,” he said. It was now more than 20 minutes into the massage. “Definitely gonna be a repeat customer,” he continued — the code phrase for Lecy’s fellow officers to break in.
The Minneapolis city attorney’s office charged Jackson with prostitution, operating a massage parlor without a license, and unlawfully exposing her breasts and touching her client during a massage. Moriarty said her office asked the prosecutors to drop the charges after hearing the audio of the incident, but they declined. The judge dismissed all four charges this week.
The officers should have moved in much sooner, said Moriarty. The crime of prostitution began when the deal for the body-to-body massage was agreed upon and the money was on the table. Everything after that was excessive, she said.
She compared it to female officers conducting sting operations to catch johns. “You know there’s no contact in any kind if they can avoid it. So why is it that the male police officers are allowed to do this kind of thing?”
This isn’t the first time a Minneapolis police officer has been accused of misconduct in a prostitution investigation. The Star Tribune points out that two other cases have been either dropped or dismissed this month.
Police declined to release whether or not they’re investigating Lecy internally for this incident — or any other cases — citing exemptions from state data laws for undercover officers.
“He certainly should be investigated,” said Moriarty. “I don’t think anybody wants Minneapolis police officers engaging in this type of behavior.”
3 Prostitution Cases Dismissed Over Behavior by Minneapolis Officers
The cases were dismissed because officers had sexual contact with female suspects.
By David Chanen Star Tribune
August 19, 2015 — 11:26pm
Three prostitution cases have been thrown out this month by Hennepin County judges and the Minneapolis city attorney, who said Minneapolis undercover police investigators went too far.
The officers’ sexual contact with the female suspects also drew a sharp denunciation from the county’s chief public defender, Mary Moriarty.
“Do citizens want officers behaving in this manner?” Moriarty asked Wednesday.
Two of the cases were dismissed by Hennepin County judges in rulings that found the officers’ actions constituted “outrageous government conduct.” The third was dismissed by the Minneapolis city attorney in light of one of the judges’ rulings.
On Wednesday, Minneapolis police said the department has discontinued such undercover investigations pending a full review of its policies. The department declined to comment on the specific cases. None of the three officers involved in the cases is under internal investigation.
As far back as 2009, the Minnesota Court of Appeals had addressed such conduct by Minneapolis police when it reversed a prostitution charge, citing similar pre-arrest behavior. At the time, then-Chief Tim Dolan asked for an internal inquiry on how the investigation was handled.
In the first of the three recent cases, Moriarty’s office learned of the conduct as it defended a woman charged in March with four misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor charges of prostitution and illegal acts at a massage business, including exposure and unlawful touching. The city attorney’s office said at the time that the case was prompted by community complaints about possible prostitution activity at a south Minneapolis business.
When assistant public defender Briana Perry received the case, she e-mailed Moriarity the 36-minute audio recorded during the encounter between officer Steven Lecy and the woman at the massage parlor, saying she found the officer’s behavior “just disgusting.” Moriarity sent the case to City Attorney Susan Segal and asked for a dismissal, but Segal declined.
On the recording, after nearly 30 minutes of small talk about tattoos, the weather and his broken hand, Lecy, who also compliments the woman’s anatomy, interrupts the massage and asks the woman if she wants him to flip onto his back. She begins touching his genitals as part of a naked “body-to-body” massage. Lecy can be heard moaning. A few moments later, he says the words “repeat customers,” code to backup officers that it’s time for an arrest. They then enter the room.
Moriarty said Lecy arrived two hours late for this week’s dismissal motion hearing and was surly and clearly upset.
“The Police Department has undercover female officers who do detail like this,” Moriarity said. “Do you think they would allow themselves to behave in any sort of sexual manner?”
In a dismissal order issued in court Tuesday, Hennepin County Judge William Fisher said probable cause for a crime could have been established long before the sexual activity recorded on the tape. Lecy’s attorney had argued that touching was necessary to make the encounter a crime.
“What must it have been like for this woman to have this happen and find out it was a police officer?” Moriarty said.
Attorney Jeffrey Dean represented the woman charged in the other two eventually dismissed cases. One case involved officer Christopher Reiter, who was found to have engaged in “outrageous sexual conduct” that violated a woman’s due process rights while he was doing undercover work at a south Minneapolis parlor in November 2014.
Hennepin County Judge Amy Dawson wrote in her Aug. 7 dismissal order that Reiter “initiated sexual contact that isn’t required for the collection of evidence to establish elements of the offense.”
Nearly 20 minutes into his interaction with the woman, court documents say, Reiter pointed to his groin after she asked “if there were any areas she had missed.” She started to rub his genitals and they negotiated a price for further action “that would take care of him,” the documents say.
Reiter’s attorney argued that his behavior was necessary to gather evidence and to protect his safety until backup officers arrived. He was merely involving himself in ongoing criminal activity and the woman wasn’t a reluctant participant, his attorney argued, court documents show.
“Cases regarding prostitution can have actions that can be offensive or distasteful,” Reiter’s attorney wrote. “That does not make them due process violations.”
The third case involved the same woman Dean represented in his other case. She was arrested in May after officer Abubakar Muridi asked her to rub his genitals before he negotiated a price for sex, Dean said. The city attorney dismissed that case Monday.
“My hope is that the Police Department will finally stop engaging in the outrageous conduct of having sexual relations with the targets of their investigations,” Dean said. “Women in prostitution are vulnerable and traumatized. They have often been the victims of physical and sexual abuse and suffer from poverty and addiction. When police engage in this unnecessary sexual conduct, the officer worsens the trauma and deepens the damage.”
New Massage License Needed
Meanwhile, a city spokesman said Wednesday that Minneapolis’ new massage license ordinance may offer a civil regulatory path to reducing prostitution that wouldn’t require building cases for criminal prosecution.
The new rules, which were passed by the City Council in 2013 and went into effect in July, require home businesses to pay an annual licensing fee of $50 and larger massage businesses to pay $140. The new rules also outline a variety of “unlawful acts” that could result in a citation or revoked license. The ordinance is aimed at making it harder for prostitution rings and other illegal outfits to thrive under the guise of the massage business.