By Christine Hauser
On an October evening last year, Robert Pinter walked into the adults-only section of an East Village video store. Within minutes, he was approached by a young, handsome stranger.
“He was very charming and cute, and we agreed to leave the store and engage in consensual sex,” said Mr. Pinter, a 53-year-old massage therapist. But on the way out, he said, the man offered Mr. Pinter $50. Mr. Pinter, who is gay, said he found it odd for a younger man to want to pay him for sex.
“Then I got this weird feeling and thought if he continues to offer me money I am going to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ ” he said.
Outside, Mr. Pinter said, he was put against a chain-link fence by undercover police officers and handcuffed. As he was being led to a van, he was told he was being arrested for “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.”
The arrest of Mr. Pinter, whose narrative differs from the police account, and more than two dozen similar arrests in more than a year have touched a nerve among many gay New Yorkers and raised the concerns of some elected officials.
A recent editorial in Gay City News said the city’s actions were reminiscent of the era of the Stonewall Inn, which was frequented by gay men. A police raid at the bar in 1969 led to protests that are now considered the beginnings of the organized gay and lesbian rights movement in New York City.
“Forty years later, the N.Y.P.D. is still targeting gay men and places we gather,” said William K. Dobbs, an advocate for gay rights.
Some of the arrests have been used by the city as evidence in “nuisance abatement” lawsuits, a tactic used for many years to try to shut down businesses where unlawful behavior is taking place. The chief police spokesman, Paul J. Browne, said that the police were not singling out gay men but merely responding to complaints about illegal activities.
In 2008, Mr. Browne said, the city obtained 900 nuisance abatement closings or “stipulations,” settlements in which a business agrees to change its practices.
Many of those cases involved under-age drinking, drug dealing and gambling in clubs. Though the police have been criticized for targeting gay-themed video stores, only 3 of the 100 nuisance cases that involved prostitution last year were at such businesses, Mr. Browne said.
“The impression is being put out there that it is all concentrated on gay Manhattan,” Mr. Browne said. “That is just not true.”
At least 34 men were arrested in 2008 and early 2009 in those types of police operations in sex-themed businesses, according to Mr. Pinter, who started a group called Coalition to Stop the Arrests. Mr. Browne said he could not immediately confirm that figure, but said that there were 1,650 female and 233 male prostitution arrests citywide in 2008.
Staff members of City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, State Senator Thomas K. Duane, other elected officials, activists and the commanding officer of the Police Department’s vice squad, Brian Conroy, met on Wednesday at City Council offices to discuss the police activities.
“I have been an elected official for quite a while, and this is the first time I have heard of such a large cluster of anything like this,” said Senator Duane, who represents parts of Manhattan and who, like Ms. Quinn, is openly gay. “And it is the first time middle-aged men are being arrested for prostitution,” particularly odd, he added, when none of them had prior arrests for anything.
A statement released by Ms. Quinn’s office on Friday said she has “serious concerns regarding the spike in arrests of gay men in the Village” and has “raised these concerns with the administration.” Work will continue to “make sure no one is being unfairly targeted by the Police Department,” the statement said.
Mr. Browne said that there was “general agreement” at the meeting that the police should address quality-of-life issues and illegal activity “but also in a way that reassures the gay community that none of its members are being targeted because they are gay.”
Mr. Pinter, who attended the meeting, said, “It was a great beginning, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.”
On Saturday, Mr. Pinter and a group of about two dozen men, most of them members of gay-rights organizations, met at Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, near Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's town house, to speak out against the arrests.
Some held up handwritten signs that read: “Shame on Bloomberg” and “Being gay is not a crime.”
“To be unfairly targeting members of a group on trumped-up charges is something that shouldn’t be happening today,” said Zachary Woolfe, 24, the president of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.
Mr. Bloomberg commented on the arrests on Feb. 7, saying: “The Police Department is looking at it and you can rest assured that Speaker Quinn is working with our administration to take a look and make sure that whatever was done was done correctly.” Asked about Saturday’s protest, Jason Post, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, said that the mayor’s staff took part in the Feb. 11 meeting, which he called “productive.”
Like Mr. Pinter, a number of men arrested said that they did not agree to accept money for sex, the key element of a prostitution charge. But few, if any, have taken their cases to trial. Most, like Mr. Pinter, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, disorderly conduct.
Senator Duane said the men did not want the embarrassment of a trial. “There is a certain amount of discomfort that these men would be having consensual sex with someone that they just met,” he said.
Twelve of the arrests, including Mr. Pinter’s, were cited in a nuisance abatement lawsuit filed against Blue Door Video, at 87 First Avenue, in November.
The case file describes how the operation was typically conducted. An undercover officer paid a $10 fee to enter the basement, where there is a theater and viewing booths. There, the officer would meet men and offer to pay for sex.
One man who was promised $25 for a sex act offered to do a different sex act for $50, the lawsuit says. Another, it says, said, “O.K., let’s go” when offered $100. Both were arrested once they left the store, so as not to tip off the business or other patrons about the operation.
One man said he wanted the undercover officer’s body, not his money, according to the officer’s statements. That man was not arrested.
In Mr. Pinter’s case, the officer said he saw Mr. Pinter “look at my money, then look at me, then nod his head.” He said he twice offered Mr. Pinter $50 while suggesting sex, and the second time “he agreed.”
“That is complete and utter fabrication,” Mr. Pinter said. “When he offered money, I said nothing. I thought to myself, where is this coming from? I will just see what is up with him. I can very easily just excuse myself and head for home and have dinner. But he seemed kind of insistent.”
Mr. Pinter pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was ordered to undergo counseling. He said his lawyer told him “that would be the easiest way to get out of this. With my state of mind, it appeared to be reasonable.”
An owner of the Blue Door said that it had settled the city’s lawsuit for $15,000.
“It is like any other video store,” said the owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymnity because he said he did not want his daughter to know that he worked at the store. “We have adult videos and movies that we are playing so anyone older than 21 years of age can buy and use them. But all these people who got accused — I cannot believe they are prostitutes.”
Jennifer Mascia contributed reporting.