Men are impersonating police officers and using the broad powers of the job to sexually assault women. But police officers, too, have a long track record of committing sexual violence against women.
The Huffington Post reported this week that these crimes are often difficult to track and, some experts say, not enough police departments are taking the issue seriously.
“It’s so troubling when we hear about these cases,” said Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, which includes a chapter about sex work. Vitale said that although some states have public education campaigns to inform civilians that, if they are pulled over by an unmarked car, they should call 911 and confirm it is an officer, these campaigns don’t always work for sex workers.
“We have some survey data of sex workers that shows a significant proportion of them have had interactions with police that involved demands for sex or other kinds of abuse, so sex workers are going to be particularly wary to challenge a police officer,” Vitale told ThinkProgress. “That may contribute to their confusion about whether or not they are dealing with a police officer.”
The Huffington Post cited two recent examples of men impersonating police officers raping women. In January, a California man raped a woman engaged in sex work after pretending to be a police officer with a gun and fake badge. He coerced the woman by telling her that he would not tell anyone about what happened if she would have sex with him, and out of fear, she complied. In November, a Utah man used a firefighter badge from an out-of-state private firefighting company to impersonate an officer and told a woman, who agreed to meet with him at a motel, that if she didn’t do what he told her to do, she would go to jail.
The targeting of sex workers is also all too common among police officers who commit sexual violence, which raises bigger questions about the effects of granting police wide discretion, as well as the criminalization of sex work. A 2015 Buffalo News investigation reviewed 700 credible cases throughout the country over the past 10 years and found that a case of sexual misconduct by a police officer cropped up every five days. These police officers are repeat offenders who often move across jurisdictions after allegations of sexual misconduct on the job, in what is called the “officer shuffle.”
Last October, Jacqueline Robarge, founder of Power Inside, a Baltimore-based human rights and harm reduction organization that serves survivors of gender-based violence, shared numerous stories of officers sexually assaulting sex workers and other vulnerable groups. Police crackdowns on sex work only exacerbate the issue and corrupt officers often see sexual violence against women as a fringe benefit they are afforded, Robarge and Vitale have said.
Criminalization of sex work itself, which places people in an underground economy without certain protections and increased safety is what exposes sex workers to violence by both officers and the men who impersonate them, Vitale explained.
“Any enforcement, whether it is targeting customers or providers, is going to exacerbate all these problems that go with having an underground economy. These workers don’t have any legally enforceable rights, essentially making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” Vitale said. “It also gives police opportunities to engage in individualized abuse and corruption and sometimes on a larger scale even, such as bribery, extortion, and demanding sex.”
Vitale added that this kind of targeted abuse of sex workers is very common.
“Police are implicated in this kind of corruption almost daily nationwide,” Vitale said. “It’s a constant threat.”
Allowing police to engage in sting operations against sex work often results in abuses of power, such as arranging meetings with sex workers and engaging in sex — an unnecessary and exploitative tactic that officers use presumably to prove someone is guilty of prostitution. According to a 2017 study in Women & Criminal Justice journal that reviewed 36 police departments, there is a great deal of variation in how police departments treat on-duty sexual misconduct against members of the public. In Louisville, Kentucky, for instance, there is an exception to the prohibition of on-duty sexual contact “presumably for the purposes of enforcement of sexual offenses” despite the fact that on-duty sexual contact is unnecessary to prove prostitution occurred.
“It smacks of corruption by police, especially when you consider that it serves no positive purpose,” Vitale said. “The police officer misrepresents themselves, engages in a commercial sex act, and then arrests the person. All you’ve done is made that person’s life much worse and you certainly haven’t produced any justice.”
Until recently, the law in Michigan allowed police to engage in sex with sex workers for undercover investigations. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed legislation in December that would remove that immunity.
Last October, D.C. council members David Grosso and Robert C. White Jr. proposed a bill that would make D.C. the only jurisdiction in the nation to decriminalize, but not legalize, sex work, with the exception of some areas in Nevada. Grosso said that decriminalizing sex work without legalizing it means there would not be “a burdensome regulatory scheme that would criminalize those who do not comply.” The Sex Worker Advocates Coalition and the ACLU of D.C. supported the bill. That same month, in California, a lawyer representing the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational, and Research Project asked a federal appeals court to overturn the state law criminalizing prostitution. One judge on the panel, Judge Carlos Bea, said, “Why should it be illegal to sell something that it’s legal to give away?”
Vitale said that although folks on the left are “deeply divided” on the issue of decriminalizing sex work, he said he is confident that there will be progress on the local level.
“There are some campaigns underway that are quite promising,” Vitale said. “I don’t think anything will pass this year but they are building momentum.”