The New York City Police Department will no longer use condoms as evidence in criminal prostitution cases, ending a decades-long practice that’s been criticized by advocacy groups for undermining safe sex. “The NYPD heard from community health advocates and took a serious look at making changes to our current policy as it relates to our broader public safety mission,” Police Commissioner William Bratton explained in a statement announcing the new policy.
Health workers in the city distribute about three million free condoms every month in an attempt to prevent the spread of HIV. But sex workers — who are more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population — are often afraid to actually use them. In the past, if a sex worker was caught carrying condoms, cops could use that as evidence to arrest them on prostitution charges. The NYPD makes about 2,500 prostitution arrests each year.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Sex Workers Project (SWP) and the Human Rights Watch (HRW), about 45 percent of sex workers have decided against carrying condoms because they’re worried they might get in trouble with the police.
There’s been pressure against this policy from the other side, too. Last year, the Brooklyn District Attorney told NYPD officials that he would no longer use condom possession to support prostitution charges, so cops should stop confiscating them in his jurisdiction.
Advocates are glad to see progress in this area, but they warn the NYPD’s new policy doesn’t go far enough. Cops are still permitted to seize condoms to support charges related to sex trafficking or prostitution promotion. Corinne Carey, a spokesperson for of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the Associated Press that the new policy is “really too limited” and “the message needs to be that condoms aren’t criminal.”
New York City isn’t the only place where police intervention is undermining efforts to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections. The current criminal justice system disproportionately targets the LGBT community and HIV-positive individuals, often unfairly profiling transgender people or criminalizing the transmission of HIV based on outdated myths about the virus. Cities like New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC all have high rates of HIV infection among sex workers who say they’re afraid to carry condoms.