New Haven police should stop arresting sex workers

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Two weeks ago, New Haven police arrested 13 sex workers in a sting operation in Fair Haven. The arrestees, all women, were charged with prostitution. Afterwards, the police department sent the womens’ mug shots, along with a press release, to local media. Several news outlets published the mug shots online.

In the press release, Lt. Herbert Johnson wrote, “We are hopeful that those arrested will avail themselves of social services available through the courts. We don’t want to keep arresting the same people.”

This notion that criminalization will facilitate access to social services is deceptive. Last week’s sting was just one chapter in a long history of state-sanctioned violence against sex workers locally and nationwide. Our reply to Lt. Johnson is simple: if you “don’t want to keep arresting the same people,” then don’t.

Criminalization increases the vulnerability of sex workers. Sex workers regularly face sexual, physical, and emotional violence in their work; yet, they do not feel safe reporting this violence to police when they fear arrest, stigma, surveillance, and discrimination. In this context, it is difficult for sex workers to screen clients and insist on condom use. Black market working conditions prevent the creation of community health initiatives to protect against HIV and other STIs.

Moreover, criminalization does not just threaten the safety of sex workers — it is also ineffective policing. If the police department really wants to eliminate the sex industry, arrest and punishment are not the solution. People with sex work-related criminal records, especially those whose mug shots have been published online, face difficulty gaining professional employment, thus increasing reliance on sex work for income. Instead of arresting sex workers, the City of New Haven should ensure they have access to services outside the criminal legal system, free of stigma.

Importantly, this sting does not tell the full story about interactions between police and sex workers in New Haven. While writing this op-ed, we spoke with a local sex worker who explained her history of abuse at the hands of the New Haven police.

She recalls one officer pulling down her pants to search her in a public parking lot after stopping her for “walking around too much.” Another time, she recalls a different officer requesting a sexual “favor” in exchange for not arresting her. In yet another case, after she was attacked and robbed by several men on the street, she was lying in the emergency room when she heard one officer say to another, “she’s just a streetwalker.”

These stories of abuse and impunity are not unique. They demonstrate how civilians and police officers alike invoke the stigma surrounding sex work to justify violence against the vulnerable. Most of this violence is endured by people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals, who compose the majority of sex workers worldwide.

There are short- and long-term actions that can to be taken to pursue justice for the women arrested in last week’s sting.

In the short-term, the Office of the State’s Attorney should drop the charges. The New Haven Police Department, which warned in its press release that it will be continuing to target the sex industry, should cease these investigations. Finally, the media outlets that participated in the public shaming of these women by publishing their mug shots online should immediately remove those images from the web.

In the long-term, we need to decriminalize sex work entirely.

In Seattle, the Law Enforcement Assistance Diversion (LEAD) program represents a first step in this process. This program requires police officers to connect sex workers and drug users with social workers instead of booking and arresting them. Through collaboration with community groups, the police department should develop a similar non-punitive program in New Haven, rooted in non-judgmental, non-coercive care.

Lastly, the media needs to re-frame the narrative around sex work. The police are required by Freedom of Information laws to make mug shots publicly available. But news outlets are not required to publish them.  Our media should stop casting shame upon sex workers. Moreover, their reporting should do more than just echo the contents of police press releases. If police control the public narrative around sex work, the press has failed its duties.

Following these arrests, a group of community organizers has formed to demand an end to police terror against sex workers in New Haven. To get involved in our work, contact Beatrice Codianni at bcodianni@reentrycentral.org. We will be holding a solidarity action outside the New Haven courthouse on Elm Street on Nov. 14 at 9 a.m. We welcome you to attend and show support.

Brett Davidson is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Connecticut Bail Fund. Beatrice Codianni is a member of the Community Board of Connecticut Bail Fund, Managing Editor of Reentry Central, and Co-Founder of the National Council for Currently Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.

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