Baltimore Is Not Only The Place Where Police Treat Sex Workers Badly

It's heartening to see that in its highly critical report on Baltimore's police department, the U.S. Department of Justice excoriated the police for ignoring sexual assault complaints by minority women, including sex workers and transgender women. The DOJ report not only concluded that the force had systematically violated the rights of African-Americans, but it also highlighted a police culture that was downright toxic toward sex workers and transgender people, according to the New York Times. Specifically, sex workers interviewed by DOJ investigators complained that officers often ignored their reports of being sexually assaulted by clients and that some cops actually coerced sexual favors from these women in exchange for not arresting them.

I'm delighted the feds and mainstream media are finally spotlighting this issue, but as I documented in my recent book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, the Baltimore police's treatment of sex workers is far from unique. Indifference and outright harassment of sex workers have been found in police departments from Alaska and California to New York City and Washington, D.C. For my book, I interviewed a number of transgender sex workers who told me that the police not only ignored their reports of sexual assault but sometimes victimized the workers themselves.

Take, for example, Kimora, an African-American transsexual whom I met at an outreach center for sex workers in Washington, D.C. Kimora said she was brutally raped by a john near the Trinidad area of D.C. and decided to press charges. But when she went to the 5th precinct police station to file a complaint, the police officer told her that she was to blame, because of the way she was dressed. "He wouldn't take the report," she says.

Ironically, Kimora said she and other street walkers are more afraid of the police than they are of johns. She knew of one D.C. cop who patrolled the streets and pretended to arrest street walkers. "Instead, he'd take the girls to an alley and rape them himself," she says, adding: "The laws don't protect people like me."

And then there is the story of Jennifer Reed, a former sex worker who is now a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Reed, whom I interviewed for my book, said 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, the Oklahoma cop who was convicted of using his badge to sexually assault low-income and minority women, some of whom were sex workers.

As I've concluded in my book and previous blogs, the toxic police culture found in so many areas of this country can be attributed not only to racial and gender bias but to the fact that adult prostitution is illegal in the U.S. (except for a number of rural counties in Nevada). As a result, many police treat sex workers (even when they haven't been arrested for a crime) as subhuman criminals and that creates the kind of atmosphere the DOJ just documented in Baltimore. As Norma Jean Almodovar, a former LAPD traffic cop and sex worker herself, said in a 2010 keynote address, "Bad laws lead to bad cops." The solution, as I've said before and will no doubt say again, is to decriminalize adult prostitution and start treating sex workers as citizens who have the right to protection just like everyone else.