By Darby Hickey, Legislative Assistant*

After decades of the ‘war on drugs’ and an obsession with ‘broken windows’ or ‘quality of life’ policing, our country seems to finally be reaching consensus against our over-reliance on incarceration. The devastating effects of mass imprisonment and biased policing are evident around the U.S. and certainly in the District of Columbia. Recent efforts to decriminalize or legalize marijuana, reform the practice of asset forfeiture, and overhaul our approach to juvenile justice have all resulted from this shift in perspective. Our city has begun to look at criminal justice through a lens of human rights, and the country is doing so as well. We are reworking our policies to recognize and address the underlying factors of why people engage in certain activities. We are grappling with the reality that some criminal penalties are worse for our communities than the behaviors that the penalties target. In light of all of this, it is worth reconsidering our policies and practices regarding sex workers and others involved in commercial sex.

On February 15, the Washington Post reported on a new round of arrests of people involved in commercial sex, resulting from online stings conducted by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). The MPD official quoted in the article stated, “We could probably do this every weekend and get the same numbers.” This echoed statements made by Assistant Chief Newsham in 2012 that MPD “can’t arrest our way out of” prostitution. In a recent exchange of letters between Councilmember Grosso and MPD Chief Cathy Lanier, the Chief wrote that while “there are very complex individual and socio-economic factors related to sex work, [MPD’s] options related to this are limited [i.e. arrests].”

Missing from the Washington Post article, like most discussions about sex work, is any consideration of the economics of commercial sex. It was also disappointing that the Post failed to interview any sex workers or advocates for this community, who likely would have noted that it is an income-generating activity. People engage in sex trade not out of some deviant mind-set, but as a means of survival--a way to pay rent, put food on the table, buy clothes for kids, and meet other needs. Arresting a sex worker doesn’t address any of these problems and, in fact, it usually exacerbates them.

Many people in D.C. and around the world have argued that a better approach to the complexities of commercial sex would be to focus directly on the individuals involved, and treat them as fully deserving of basic human rights. A human rights response to commercial sex would reframe the discussion—issues of violence against sex workers, police misconduct, public health, and stigma become the focus and sex workers and their activities stop being ‘the problem’.

A key part of a human rights approach is listening to the individuals involved in commercial sex. As Councilmember Grosso emphasized during the public hearing last year on the Sex Trafficking of Minors Prevention Amendment Act, “We must listen and respond to these diverse experiences with compassion and respect, not with arrest or judgment. Youth trading sex for money are already asking for access to low threshold, voluntary services for housing, healthcare, education, legal assistance and more.” The same goes for adult sex workers.

Yet some police officials state that arresting individuals trading sex for money is the best way to link them to such services. For example, in the MPD response to oversight questions from the Committee on the Judiciary, the Chief writes, "arrest is often the tool by which MPD can take the juveniles into custody... so that the juvenile can be connected with a service organization."

This misses the reality that an arrest itself can be traumatizing. In fact, police crack downs, whether on the streets or online, usually make it harder for outreach groups to contact people engaged in commercial sex who may need help. And it ignores the deep-seated mistrust of police and other authorities that exists in these communities. For example, research in Chicago revealed that young people involved in sex trade named police and healthcare officials as the main sources of violence and abuse in their lives.

We should not be arresting a sex worker or a minor engaging in sex trade in order to force them into services or to cooperate in a criminal investigation—a phenomenon noted in a City Paper article just last month. This goes against all we have learned about victim-centered approaches to violence and abuse. That is why Councilmember Grosso argued that the “Sex Trafficking of Minors Prevention Amendment Act” should prohibit police from arresting young people involved in sex trade.

A human rights-based practice would ensure that MPD is adopting proactive community policing. Police should be seeking to build relationships and trust, responding positively and with sensitivity to service calls, not seeking to get an arrest or conviction at all costs but addressing the needs of the survivor.

One place to start would be for MPD to not treat sex workers (or those assumed to be such) as “criminals” when they are victims of violence and are seeking redress. This problem was found to be pervasive in D.C. in a 2008 community-based research project. Respondents reported being told they “got what they deserved” for being sex workers when they were raped, stabbed, or otherwise attacked. This finding is supported by research in other jurisdictions across the country from New York to Los Angeles to New Orleans. A recent report by WAMU highlighted that this remains an issue today.  

Another aspect of a human rights approach to people involved in sex trade has already been partially implemented in D.C.—the policy of MPD that condoms are not to be used as evidence of engaging in prostitution. The community-based research referenced earlier and a subsequent study by Human Rights Watch found that while officially MPD and prosecutors rarely included condoms as evidence, they were used as pretext for arrests or confiscated or destroyed. There was also a widespread perception among residents that possessing more than three condoms would result in a prostitution charge. In 2009, MPD clarified that this was not the case, issued a policy statement to officers, and distributed informational materials throughout the community.

Unfortunately, this important step by MPD had two exceptions—in cases involving human trafficking or minors. Yet individuals in situations of coercion, including young people under the age of 18, are especially in need of access to condoms. Ensuring access to condoms helps reduce the harms they are facing, and the philosophy of harm reduction is based in a human rights framework.

As Councilmember Grosso has consistently stated, MPD needs to think outside the box on this and other issues and change policies and practices accordingly. A great start would be for MPD to shift from a stance that “people experiencing police misconduct should come forward” to one where leadership proactively seeks to identify patterns of mistreatment and abuse. Another step would be engaging with the community, rather than dismissing concerns about how police are interacting with residents. It is also the responsibility of the Council, the Mayor, and residents of the city to do a better job of understanding the human rights issues involved in commercial sex. We have come to recognize and reduce the harms of criminalization in many policy areas from drugs to schools to immigration. The time is now to reconsider the framework in which we handle commercial sex.

*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso.