Bad (Prostitution) Laws Lead to Bad Cops: Just Look at What Happened in Oklahoma

In a rare case of justice being served, a police officer was convicted last week of multiple counts of rape and sexual assault on black women who lived in a low-income neighborhood of Oklahoma City. Daniel Holtzclaw, a 29-year-old police officer of white and Japanese descent, had been accused of targeting marginalized women, many of whom were either sex workers or drug addicts. While Holtzclaw will hopefully do serious time for his offenses, what many media outlets neglected to mention is that he is just the latest in a long list of violent predators who target sex workers and other marginalized women precisely because they are less likely to report crimes to the police.

As Gary Ridgeway, the infamous Green River killer who was convicted of murdering dozens of women in Washington State, said at his sentencing hearing, "I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."

Holtzclaw not only squats on the shoulders of serial killers like Ridgeway, Ted Bundy and Willy Pickton, who murdered dozens of aboriginal sex workers in British Columbia. But he represents yet another long-standing and disturbing trend: cops who are corrupted by laws that criminalize prostitution. As I discovered in researching my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, law enforcement in this country have a sordid history of sexual misconduct involving marginalized women, including sex workers and drug addicts. Streetwalkers in cities like Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco shared stories with me and other researchers about police officers who wanted blow jobs in exchange for not getting arrested or who forced them to have sex. One Columbia University sociologist who studied 160 streetwalkers on the south side of Chicago found that they were more likely to have sex with a cop than to be arrested by one.

Jennifer Reed, a former sex worker who is now a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told me that she and her family were harassed by a police officer in Ohio when she was a divorced single mother doing sex work to make ends meet. When Reed refused to have sex with this cop, he threatened to have her children arrested. One day, she got a call from both her children's schools; police were there searching her 13-year-old son, then in middle school, and 11-year-old daughter for drugs.

"I went to my son's school first and talked to the principal who was female," Reed says. "She knew my son wasn't a problem, he was a good kid, and she understood what was going on." Then, Reed went to her daughter's elementary school. When she walked into the principal's office, the same cop who had pressured her for sex was there, "grinning from ear to ear." He held up a bag of what he claimed was marijuana and said he had found in her daughter's school locker. "It turned out to be a bag of spices and it had been planted," Reed said. "My daughter is an honors student, but the principal said my daughter would either get suspended or be sent to an alternative school."

Reed was forced to pull her children out of their schools and home school them until she could move out of the neighborhood. As she notes, most police officers are not like that, but the minority who harass sex workers and other vulnerable women tend to be habitual offenders - just like the Ohio cop who harassed her family and Daniel Holtzclaw. In the Oklahoma case, it wasn't until a woman who wasn't in trouble with the law came forward to report Holtzclaw for sexually assaulting her that the police began investigating and uncovered many more complaints about him.

There is a solution to such misconduct: decriminalizing adult consensual prostitution. In countries where sex work has been decriminalized and regulated to some extent, such as the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand, sex workers are more comfortable reporting violence and harassment to the authorities and women experience lower levels of violence, research indicates. Studies also show that arresting prostitutes are an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars. Indeed, according to one study, many large cities spend more on prostitution control than they do on either education or health care. As Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University sociologist and longtime scholar of the sex industry, notes, the United States has been arresting sex workers for decades, yet prostitution continues to flourish.

Indeed, it is on the rise in the United States as it is globally. Weitzer argues that it is time to recognize that criminalization is a failed strategy that clearly harms sex workers and lets violent predators off the hook. (That's why Amnesty International recently called for the global decriminalization of sex work.) As Weitzer and others argue, refocusing law enforcement efforts on violent crime, property theft and underage prostitution would be a much more effective use of taxpayer dollars.

As Normal Jean Almodovar, a former LAPD traffic cop and sex worker herself, said in a 2010 keynote address, "Bad laws lead to bad cops." So let's start by changing the laws.