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Police, DA Seek to Aid Sex Workers

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Police Chief William Scott.
Police Chief William Scott.  (Source:Sari Staver)

San Francisco's top law enforcement agencies have agreed not to arrest or prosecute sex workers for prostitution or minor drug offenses when they report violent crimes.

The policy, spelled out in directives that Police Chief William Scott and District Attorney George Gascón issued to their staffs, are meant to prioritize sex workers' safety over prosecuting them for misdemeanor prostitution and drug-related offenses. The Department on the Status of Women, which worked with law enforcement and local sex worker rights groups to create the policy, made the announcement January 11.

One researcher said that most sex workers in San Francisco avoid police.

"Our research and direct service work in San Francisco have shown that most sex workers, and people experiencing exploitation in the sex industry, do not go to the police when they have been victimized," stated Alexandra Lutnick, senior research scientist at RTI International.

San Francisco's policy is the first of its kind in the country, according to Carol Leigh, director of the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network.

In last week's announcement, Scott stated, "This policy underscores our commitment to providing services to all victims. We understand that many times sex workers are themselves victims of predators and human traffickers. Our policy is written in the spirit of encouraging sex workers to feel safe coming forward to law enforcement, with the knowledge that they will be treated with respect and their concerns will be taken seriously and investigated."

In a bulletin Scott issued to his department in December, he said that people are not to be arrested for being involved in sex trade when they're victims or witnesses of sexual assault or other assaults, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, threats, and other violent crimes. Police are also not to arrest suspected sex workers for misdemeanor drug offenses when they report being the victim or witness of such crimes, he said.

"However," Scott said in the bulletin, "if a misdemeanor drug offense violation occurs, and the violator reports being a victim or witness" of a violent crime, "officers shall seize and book evidence as appropriate and document the circumstances of the contact in an incident report. This will facilitate a referral of the case to the district attorney's office for a warrant consideration."

The police chief said that in addition to documenting information in a police report, officers would refer sex workers who report violent crimes to community resources and the DA's Victim Services Division.

A DA's memo to the agency's staff said people suspected of being involved in the sex trade won't be prosecuted when they're victims or witnesses of the violent crimes that Scott listed, and people won't be prosecuted "for uncharged offenses" involving sex work and misdemeanor drug offenses when reporting violent crimes.

"Information gathered from a victim or witness of a violent crime who is engaged in sex work or other forms of sex trade including trafficked persons will not be used in any manner to investigate and prosecute that person, during the course of the investigation or in the future," the memo said.

In last week's announcement, Gascón stated, "If we fail to prioritize this population's health and safety they will not come forward and work with law enforcement as witnesses and victims of violence. Ultimately, unreported crimes and criminals pose a threat to everyone's public safety."

Police and prosecutors will work with the sheriff's department and community groups on a training program to ensure the policy's "implemented in a manner that furthers the goal of the reporting of violent crime by persons engaged in sex work and other forms of sex trade including trafficked persons," the DA's memo said.

Johanna Breyer, executive director of St. James Infirmary, an occupational health and safety clinic that offers free medical care and other services to sex workers, stated last week, "Our hope for this policy is to reduce the harm experienced by sex workers, in particular, women of color and transgender women engaged in the sex trades, who have no protections when reporting violence, or experience mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement."

Minouche Kandel, director of women's policy at the Department on the Status of Women, said that the policy is "a major step toward addressing violence against women wary of contacting law enforcement because of their criminalized status."

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