According to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), aggressive police harassment in New Orleans is directly undermining the city’s efforts to prevent and treat HIV infections. Despite the fact that Louisiana has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the nation — in fact, the number of people dying from AIDS in the state is more than double the national average — the report claims that it “has chosen punishment over public health” for the marginalized communities at risk for infection, such as sex workers and drug users.
Specifically, law enforcement officials are cracking down on prostitution in a way that HRW believes is actually encouraging the spread of HIV. New Orleans is so intent on identifying potential sex workers that it allows cops to prosecute “loitering for prostitution,” an incredibly vague statute that results in arbitrarily targeting people in public. Officers randomly stop people who they deem suspicious and search them for evidence of prostitution — and, if they find condoms, that can be enough for an arrest.
That’s created a culture where some New Orleans residents are risking HIV transmission rather than risking getting caught with condoms. “Sex workers, transgender women and others at high risk of HIV infection told us that they were afraid to carry condoms and that they sometimes had to engage in sex without protection out of fear of police harassment,” the report notes.
New Orleans isn’t the only place where this is happening. It’s not uncommon for law enforcement officials to use condoms as evidence of prostitution. Studies have documented the harmful effects of this approach in New York City, where police tend to confiscate condoms from LGBT adults, youth of color, and lower-income communities. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC also all have high rates of HIV infection among sex workers who say they’re afraid to carry condoms.
There’s some progress being made. In June, New York became the first state in the nation to pass a law that prohibits police from using condoms as evidence of prostitution-related crimes. The police department in the nation’s capital distributes “condom awareness cards” to community groups working with sex workers and transgender communities, explaining that carrying condoms isn’t grounds for a police search in DC. HRW’s report calls on New Orleans to implement similar policies.
HRW points out that there are several other dynamics in Louisiana that make this a particularly serious public health crisis. The state hasn’t done enough to ensure access to clean syringes, a strategy that’s been proven to reduce the rate of HIV infections among people who use drugs. And Louisiana has particularly high rates of poverty and incarceration, something that has forced more people to turn to exchanging sex for money or drugs. In addition to calling on law enforcement officials to reform their policies for prosecuting prostitution, HRW is also urging Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which would extend health care to an estimated 265,000 low-income Lousianans.
A representative from the city’s police force refuted the allegations in HRW’s report last week. “The NOPD takes such allegations very seriously, and conducts thorough investigations into accused officers. Officers found to have violated departmental policy or law are disciplined, and in some cases, suspended or terminated,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Aside from any potential connection to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, however, the New Orleans police department may be guilty of other serious violations. It’s already under federal oversight following a 10-month investigation conducted by the Justice Department. According to the New York Times, the federal investigators “found evidence of the use of excessive force on civilians, discrimination, a failure to investigate serious crimes and a startling lack of accountability.”