A new report concludes that the confiscation of condoms from prostitutes and other sex workers during police investigations places them at increased risk of HIV.
Human Rights Watch officially released the 12-page report at a press conference at the National Press Club on Thursday that includes interviews with more than 300 current or former sex workers, activists, law enforcement and public health officials in D.C., New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. These include Felicia C., a sex worker in Columbia Heights who said that police officers told her to throw away her condoms last December.
“I told them ‘No I am not throwing them in the garbage,’” she said, as noted in the report. “I don’t want to die!”
Others pointed to what they described to Human Rights Watch as the Metropolitan Police Department’s “3-condom rule.”
“In 2011 they locked me up in the 5th district,” said Nila R. “The cop told me I could have three condoms and threw the others out, I had 10 altogether. Also, an open condom is a charge. I’ve been locked up for it, the cops told me they were locking me up for an open condom.”
Human Rights Watch urges law enforcement and prosecutors in the four cities highlighted in the report to adopt policies that prohibit the use of condom possession as evidence against suspected sex workers. The report further calls upon the MPD, the New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco Police Departments to emphasize the importance of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. It also urges the D.C. Council and New York and California lawmakers to either repeal or reform broad loitering laws designed to curb prostitution.
“Eliminating HIV infections is a national priority and ensuring the availability of condoms among those at highest risk is critical,” said Megan McLemore, senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Transgender activist Ruby Corado, who is among those who spoke at the National Press Club, told the Blade that this report does not come as a surprise. The Department of Health distributed more than five million male and female condoms in 2011, but she stressed that policing policies outlined in the Human Rights Watch report undermine these programs.
“If you’re going to address HIV and AIDS, you want to make sure you address things that are important,” she said.
Assistant D.C. police chief Peter Newsham told the Blade that the MPD rarely uses condoms as evidence in prostitution-related cases. “It’s a very rare occurrence for us to seize condoms in a prostitution investigation,” he stressed. “The MPD is very much supportive of the city’s efforts to distribute condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.”
The Human Rights Watch report notes that Newsham said that he was “concerned” about reports that MPD officers stopped and searched suspected sex workers during “circumstances that suggested a lack of probable cause.” He told the Blade that those who experienced police harassment should contact the MPD.
Newsham went on to question the report’s accuracy.
“Human Rights Watch uses anecdotal examples that are really uncorroborated and unsupported to make their point,” he said. “That being said, there’s nothing to suggest either that they are true or not true. They could potentially be true; they could potentially be not true.”
Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive is one of the organizations that worked with Human Rights Watch on the report.
Cyndee Clay, the group’s executive director, told the Blade that her agency receives what she described as regular reports from sex workers who claim D.C. police officers have questioned the number of condoms they have in their possession. She urged the MPD to clarify its policy.
“They’re saying this isn’t something that’s happening on a regular basis and this is not something that they’re doing, than we’re asking them to work with us to clarify or do something to state it’s not happening,” said Clay. “Regardless of whether or not this is something that every officer is doing, this is something certain members of the community has experienced; more than one member of the community has experienced and it’s something that even if it happens a couple of times has a chilling effect on everyone else’s capacity and everyone else’s ability to carry condoms.”