My commitment to human rights predates my time in office and a human rights framework is interwoven into all of the work I do here on the D.C. Council. I was disturbed when I read a report released last month on relations between the LGBT community and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). A task force of experts who investigated MPD’s handling of hate crimes drafted and released the report. The report documents a number of problems and makes recommendations for how to address the way MPD interacts with the LGBT community. What I found most troubling was the task force’s finding that “the mistreatment of transgender individuals — and particularly transgender women of color — by police officers is among the most frequently cited and egregious examples of bias and misconduct.” Unfortunately, that is not news to many in the LGBT community.
The recommendations in the report from the hate crimes assessment task force are directed to MPD and should be implemented quickly. Outside of the task force, seven community-based organizations (Casa Ruby, The D.C. Center, D.C. Trans Coalition, GLAA, GLOV, HIPS and Rainbow Response) came together and issued additional recommendations for both MPD and the D.C. Council. Chief Lanier is already moving forward with the reforms, in close collaboration with the community groups and the task force. To continue this effort, the D.C. Council must also act quickly. I have decided to implement one of the coalition’s recommendations immediately by introducing a bill to repeal “prostitution free zones” in D.C.
This provision of the D.C. Code permits MPD to declare a particular location as a prostitution free zone for a 20-day period. Police officers can then ask any group of two or more people who an officer “reasonably believes” is in the prostitution free zone for the purpose of sex work to vacate the area. If the people do not leave the area then they can be arrested. According to the task force report, transgender women (African Americans and Latinas in particular) express that MPD officers regularly view and treat them as criminals. This stereotype—that all transgender women are always engaging in sex trade—is damaging and results in their human rights being violated. This happens when police stop or arrest someone based on who they are rather than what they are doing. The prostitution free zones reinforce this bias.
The task force, along with previous research, found that this bias also means that when transgender women approach police for help, they all too often face hostility and don’t receive assistance. It is important for police officers to not stereotype transgender women in this way. But it is also critical that police officers help someone who is assaulted or raped, even if they were involved in sex work. MPD is responsible for the safety of everyone, including sex workers.
Repeal of the prostitution free zones is long overdue for several reasons. First, the statute is likely unconstitutional—the Attorney General’s office testified in January 2012 that, “we have substantial concerns about [the law’s] constitutional soundness.” Second, MPD has not initiated any prostitution free zones since 2012—indeed, officials told me that they do not oppose repeal of the prostitution free zone section of law. Perhaps most importantly, the prostitution free zones, and the inevitable profiling that happens within them, violate affected residents’ human right to be free from discrimination.
Just as we are reconsidering other laws that have been found to be discriminatory, I think it is time that we open up the conversation regarding how we handle commercial sex. We need to consider changing from a framework of criminalization to a framework that emphasizes the health and human rights of those involved. Meanwhile, let’s make the easy decision to take a constitutionally suspect law off the books and repeal the prostitution free zones.
David Grosso is an at-large D.C. Council member.