New York's Condom Bait-and-Switch

Department of Health hands them out, NYPD arrests people for carrying them. Is this about improving public health—or arrest numbers?

The issue of condoms as evidence is not new to New York City. One judge who presided over prostitution-related cases in Queens for years first saw prosecutors try to use condoms as evidence 20 years ago. Marilyn, a former sex worker, says she was arrested in Hunts Point in the early 1990s. “I was arrested for carrying condoms,” she recalls as she sits in the Bronx storefront office of New York Harm Reduction Educators, a nonprofit that does grassroots outreach for drug users and prostitutes, where she is now a peer educator. “When they did the sweeps, if you had condoms on you, they would take you with them and charge you with loitering, soliciting,” she says. “I have an arrest record with that.”

Outside the white van on Surf Avenue stands a clear bucket the size of a tall kitchen trash can. It bears a sign: "Please take condoms. FREE! Coje los Condomes. SON Gratis!" Dozens of passersby, men and women, reach into the bucket throughout the day, grabbing individually sealed plastic bags, each filled with 12 NYC Condoms. Some take only one bag, and others take as many as four. Inside the van, a cardboard box sits next to Jennifer Gonzalez-Hermides. It is labeled prominently: "NYC Condoms. Quantity: 1008." The last time Gonzalez-Hermides was arrested, two and a half years ago, she had just come from the van, she says, and she was “carrying tons of condoms.”

The Department of Health is flooding the city with free condoms, and the police department is using those very condoms to make the quality-of-life arrests that are clogging the courts. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the NYPD is deliberately seeking to increase quality-of-life arrests—perhaps even meet quotas—with arrests that are blatantly at odds with the city’s own public-health policy. (The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

“I hope these arrests aren’t just being generated for numbers reasons,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor and now a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I think the public-health concern really has to be weighed heavily.”

The pressure has been building on the Department of Health to take a stand. “I have represented transgender women who have been charged with loitering for purposes of prostitution who had on their arrest evidence sheet ‘nine NYC Condoms,’ ” says Andrea Ritchie, a co-organizer for Streetwise and Safe, an advocacy group for LGTBQ youth of color. “If I were the Department of Health, I would find that outrageous.”

Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, started researching the issue in 2009. She assumed the Department of Health would be a natural ally, and at first it was. In 2010, the DOH and the PROS Network (Providers and Resources Offering Services to sex workers), a New York City coalition of sex workers, organizers, and service providers, conducted a joint study on the public-health effects of using condoms as evidence. But then, in December 2010, the DOH decided not to release the study. (The official DOH position is that the study was an internal document, and a Department of Health spokesperson would not comment further on the record.) The Sex Workers Project and the PROS Network spent the following year redoing the study themselves, and Human Rights Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the 2010 joint study.

The request was granted, and the document was published as an appendix in the PROS Network study in April 2012, with consistent results. “It’s not a myth. The practice of using condoms as evidence is very prevalent in New York,” Baskin says. “And many sex workers are afraid to carry condoms.” According to the redacted Department of Health study that was obtained by Human Rights Watch, 57 percent of respondents had condoms confiscated by the police. And over 45 percent of participants in the PROS Network study reported not carrying condoms at some point out of fear of police repercussions. “This is incompatible with the city’s public-health efforts,” says Margaret Wurth, a public-health consultant to Human Rights Watch.

Perhaps it will take a new law to make clear that arresting people because they are in possession of condoms that are not only legal to possess but are distributed to them by the city itself amounts to something that looks an awful lot like entrapment and a civil-rights violation. A bill that is pending in the New York State Legislature would stop police and prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution. The legislation was first introduced by Brooklyn Democratic state senator Velmanette Montgomery in 1999. Reintroduced every year since, it has regularly died in committee. But it was reintroduced again in mid-January as the “No Condoms As Evidence Bill,” sponsored by Montgomery and Queens Democratic Assemblywoman Barbara M. Clark, and after the release of the reports last year, there is a new push for the legislation to pass this session. If it does, it will be the first state legislation to take a policy stance on this issue.

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18 comments
melissabfrank
melissabfrank

That's funny. I lived 7 years in TX. Some just north of the hill country and the rest in DFW. I went to Syracuse and work right near Dinosaur BBQ and its enjoyable but not Texas BBQ. You want good chimes you go to NY. You want good Mexican and BBQ, Texas is the spot. Excited to see what John Aviles, ex-Franklin's guy does in BK.

PeoplesPride
PeoplesPride

Peoples Pride, a lifestyle denim brand, with  condom pocket in mind .... read about it http://bit.ly/Wh5fg6 

Love to hear from you, Peoples Pride team 

frank124c
frank124c topcommenter

People who are arrested unjustly in NYC should plead "Not Guilty!" and demand a trial by jury. When people start standing up for their rights, injustice will disappear. . 

gm0622
gm0622

so, if I were to walk out of a bodega after purchasing condoms, i would be a risk of arrest? some defense attorney is going to ask that question, if it has not been asked already.

NoComment
NoComment

The Village Voice is exactly the kind of paper that Warren Buffet was in the news talking about yesterday.  A local paper that prints stories, important to locals, that no other national paper will carry.  Thank you, Village Voice.  Excellent work.

This is an incredibly important piece of journalism.  Ray Kelly should be horse-whipped for allowing such laws to taint the NYPD.  And can you please call out Christine Quinn for her part in this in a follow-up article?  Who passed these laws? If it's the City Council, I'd like to know when it passed and how long it has been going on.  It's shameful and shocking what the NYPD has become.

James Donaji
James Donaji

The article doesn't mention trans women, but the NYPD does the same to them. Gay men are also accused of "looking for sex" or something similar if they have condoms in their pockets. Thanks for the article, VV. Sharing it.

Village Voice
Village Voice

Cheers CJ - nothing wrong with keeping us on our toes.

C.j. Swarthout
C.j. Swarthout

I mean only to give constructive criticism in the interest of having one of the few credible journalistic voices appear as such. Keep up the real journalism yalls.

C.j. Swarthout
C.j. Swarthout

Ok, I've read but I still think the two above snippets are a bit reckless. It's a wonderful article and has a lot of value and isn't being reported on to the extent it should be like a lot of stuff that VV does. It just seems that the two above quotes make it seem like a conspiracy from the jump(which I'm assuming you don't believe), rather than some people conspiring to keep from stepping on NYPD's toes to the detriment of public health (which it most surely is).

Village Voice
Village Voice

If it weren't for the city report on the issue with half the sections blacked out we got our hands on, and cases being thrown out of court, we'd tend to agree - read on, friend.

C.j. Swarthout
C.j. Swarthout

I usually think the VV is a last vestige of real media journalism..., and I admittedly haven't read the article, but the above line is kinda reckless. This has way more to do with the failures of bureaucratic interaction and the douchiness of the NYPD than some kind of higher-level conspiracy.

aldarase
aldarase

@frank124c when your options are staying locked up for possibly months because you can't make bail or pleading out what would you do?

jmcarollo
jmcarollo

@NoComment I am a member of an advisory panel to the Commissioner ... in all of our meetings with him over this issue, he has made it clear that the department takes its "evidence" orders from the DA's office ... we have five in NYC ... only two have reluctantly pulled back, Manhattan and Kings ... but they have refused to put it in writing! We are making progress, and there was a press conference just this week, but the work will not end until all NY State DA's are on board. Period.

jmcarollo
jmcarollo

@C.j. SwarthoutI am a member of an advisory panel to the Commissioner ... in all of our meetings with him over this issue, he has made it clear that the department takes its "evidence" orders from the DA's office ... we have five in NYC ... only two have reluctantly pulled back, Manhattan and Kings ... but they have refused to put it in writing! We are making progress, and there was a press conference just this week, but the work will not end until all NY State DA's are on board. Period.

 
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