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Since 1976, it’s been a crime to “loiter for the purposes of engaging in a prostitution offense” in New York City. That might sound like the kind of thing that went out of fashion along with XXX marquees in Times Square. But between 2012 and 2015, the NYPD arrested and charged 1,300 people with this misdemeanor.
The Voice obtained arrest data from Legal Aid and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services Arrest Statistics for the past three years. This data was then mapped by John Keefe.
The vast majority of those charged with this offense (81%) are women. Overall, according to New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services Arrest Statistics, 85% of those arrested for loitering for prostitution between 2012 and 2015 were black or Latina.
How exactly do police think they can tell when women are doing something “for the purposes of” prostitution? The law gives the NYPD very wide discretion. From the supporting depositions officers file with each arrest, police list as evidence such wholly innocent behaviors as waving at passers-by, having conversations with someone of a different gender, or wearing tights jeans or baring cleavage.
This September, eight women of color, including cisgender and transgender women, filed a civil rights suit with the support of The Legal Aid Society of New York, challenging the constitutionality of the loitering law. They describe a pattern of targeted and yet arbitrary policing, sweeping women of color from their neighborhoods into jails, sticking them with prostitution records that police then use as evidence against them to make arrests again and again.
But loitering arrests don’t reveal the places sex work happens in the city, only the places where women are most likely to be policed based on their presence alone, whether they are engaged in sex work or not. Between 2012 and 2015, 68.5% of arrests for loitering for the purposes of prostitution were made in just five neighborhoods: Bushwick (83rd Precinct), Belmont/Fordham Heights (52nd Precinct), East New York (75th Precinct), Hunts Point (41st Precinct), and Brownsville (73rd Precinct), neighborhoods where residents are predominantly people of color.
Police say these neighborhoods are “prostitution prone,” but as Kate Mogulescu, a supervising attorney in the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice, points out, “this is based on a self-fulfilling cycle. They make an arrest in a place, therefore that place becomes ‘prostitution prone’ – and they can make more arrests in that place, because they have already identified it as prostitution prone.”
“It is easier to prove somebody is guilty when it is already on their record,” said Sarah Marchando, one of the women suing over the loitering law. “There is really no fight,” You can’t say, ‘Hey, I wasn’t doing this!’ if you are dressed a certain way.”
“The only thing that you can do to avoid it,” Tiffaney Grissom, another plaintiff on the suit told me, “is just not go outside.”
Read the entire report on the women’s lawsuit against the practice here.