Street Sweeping

Bloomberg Plan Sends Prostitutes Cycling From City Jails to Local Corners

Elsie, who also takes some condoms, is older than the other girls—her youngest child is 24. Unlike most of the others, she's got an apartment and a phone, so her "dates" call her and they meet somewhere. "I know they're watching me, trying to catch me," she says of the cops. She's done two 90-day stints at Rikers. Once, she says, she was in the subway buying a MetroCard and felt a tap on her shoulder. It was a cop, telling her to come up to the street; the officer wanted to ask her something. Next thing she knew she had a summons for loitering. "I don't understand why they're over here wasting their time while someone's raping a little girl or getting robbed down the street," she says. "Crime is what's happening over there while they're over here watching the girls get dates."

"Revolving Door" contains interviews with just 30 sex workers, but Thukral says the similarity of experiences across neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan—experiences much like Vicki's and Elsie's—speaks to a phenomenon that's citywide, one that's challenging to document but that advocates have witnessed and heard about for years. Seventy percent of those interviewed said the cops approached them on a daily or near-daily basis, no matter what they were doing. At best, they qualified this as harassment—being told to get off the street, or given a summons on their way to the deli, or subjected to insults, often of a sexual or misogynist nature, but sometimes just unbelievably cruel, like "You're not dead yet?" Many recalled having their bags searched, and one told of being made to unwrap all her condoms and drop them down the sewer, "all the time, 10 times a month," she told researchers.

"These women are in a situation in which they can't conduct their everyday lives, like going to the store, like visiting a friend," says Melissa Ditmore, a co-author of the report. "This kind of behavior is not law enforcement. It is harassment."

illustration: Kana Philip

About half of those interviewed reported criminal misconduct by police officers, including sexual harassment, physical assault, demanding sex in exchange for not being arrested, paying for oral sex with cigarettes, and, in one instance, rape. Many said they wouldn't turn to law enforcement if they were victims of an assault—and 80 percent said they had been assaulted on the job. Some reported being blamed or ignored when they'd gone to police. "The police protect who they want to protect," says Vicki.

The report unexpectedly found police harassment of community outreach workers as well. This aspect "came up so frequently in discussion with cooperative organizations," says the report, that researchers decided to expand the study.

Hermon Getachew, a program coordinator at FIERCE!, which organizes the mostly queer homeless youth who congregate near the Christopher Street piers in the West Village, says police have tried to stop project workers from handing out pamphlets. "They've said, 'You can't do that here,' and then they follow folks around." She says harm-reduction groups have been pushed out of the area altogether.

Nightworks met with similar resistance in Bushwick, Brooklyn. For more than a year, they set up shop on a grim but active block in Precinct 90, practically on top of a waste treatment facility. "They told us we had to get out," says Nalepka. "They'd drive by and tell us we didn't belong there." When one of the outreach workers was threatened with arrest, Nightworks decided to move. On the new block, in the next precinct, the cops are tolerant.

Even if police let outreach workers do their jobs, say advocates, the false arrests and aggressive sweeps force the sex workers to constantly mix up their routine, working in different places to avoid confrontations. The skipping around makes them harder to find. "Street-based sex workers rely on their intuition for their safety," says Sophia Zamudio-Haas, a caseworker at Nightworks. If cops are around, sex workers are more likely to make rash decisions, like going in cars they normally wouldn't. "I think there's a direct connection between increased police presence, increased threat of arrest, and the risk of violence for sex workers," she says. "Women are getting pushed into the most isolated and most abandoned parts of the city to escape that eye."

The NYPD's public affairs bureau refused to comment on the "Revolving Door" report or the claims of police misconduct, stating only, "Prostitution is illegal in New York, and as long as it is, the New York City Police Department will enforce the law."

New York City Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt, an architect of Spotlight, also refused to comment on specific claims of police harassment and downplayed Spotlight's role in targeting prostitutes, estimating their representation among project arrests at a mere 8 percent. According to him, arrests for prostitution are actually down 16 percent over the past four years, and just 30 percent of those arrested for prostitution go to jail. Drug offenders and shoplifters, he says, are the top two Spotlight targets. "We're talking about people who are making a career out of committing crime, and that's where we should be focusing our criminal justice resources. It's those people who we should be punishing," he told the Voice.

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