Chicago police are investigating whether an on-duty sergeant coerced a transgender woman into sexual activity to avoid time in jail in March.
According to documents obtained by the Chicago Tribune, the black trans woman said she was sexually assaulted by an officer in March, reporting the incident to hospital staff shortly after it took place.
She told detectives that she was in part of a Chicago neighborhood where police are aware sex work takes place. She did not say she was there to do sex work and said she was with her boyfriend when a police vehicle pulled up to her and asked her what she was doing there. She reportedly told the officer she was going home. She said the sergeant told her to get in the front seat of the car, drove her to an alley, exposed himself to her, and told her to perform a sex act. She said she did so because she was scared.
She told detectives that he told her that she had to engage in the sex act if she wanted to avoid jail time and telling her, “that’s what you do.”
The woman went to Rush University Medical Center that night, where she told staff she had been sexually assaulted and provided DNA evidence. But she then left out of fear of police retaliation, the Tribune reported. Police learned her name from the hospital and when she was arrested on a shoplifting charge a few weeks later and talked to her about the alleged incident.
Sexual assaults like these are common knowledge to trans women of color, who are often profiled by police as engaging in sex work. The criminalization of sex work makes it easier for police officers to coerce sex workers and those profiled as sex workers into sexual acts in exchange for their freedom, former and current sex workers have said.
This abuse of power and the targeting of trans people is partly why sex workers and their allies in New York and the District of Columbia advocate for the decriminalization of sex work.
The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 report, Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade, describes how trans people experience “multiple layers of criminalization” including police profiling and enforcement of what are known as prostitution free zones. The latter allows police even broader powers to question people they believe to be in the zones for the purposes of prostitution.
The report explains:
“Police may classify an individual as a ‘known prostitute’ or issue ‘stay away orders’ which associate a physical location with a presumption of criminal activity, regardless of the legitimate, non-criminal reasons a person might have for being in an area. Profiling, particularly of transgender women of color, is commonly referred to as ‘walking while trans’ or ‘walking while Black.’ Aside from solicitation, police also arrest transgender individuals accused of involvement in commercial sex with seemingly unrelated charges such as ‘failure to obey’ or ‘disorderly conduct.'”
These broad powers, made possible by the criminalization of sex work, contribute to an environment in which police have legal cover to put vulnerable trans women of color in danger. Police can use the powers afforded to them to commit sexual violence in a variety of ways, such as through traffic stops, requests for assistance, programs for young people, known as Explorer programs, and even through the enforcement of curfews.
Phil Stinson, a former police officer and professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, wrote in his 2014 study of police sexual misconduct cases, “Police commonly encounter citizens who are vulnerable, usually because they are victims, criminal suspects, or perceived as ‘suspicious’ and subject to the power and coercive authority granted to police.”
Last year, two police officers, one from D.C. and one from Prince George’s County, came under investigation for allegedly abusing their power to sexually assault transgender sex workers. A trans sex worker told Fox 5 News that police coerced trans sex workers into sex acts, threatening to arrest them if they didn’t comply. Fox 5 News obtained video from the place where the alleged assaults took place showing one person — allegedly a D.C. police lieutenant — naked below the waist. Fox 5 reported in November that officers had been suspended in the case and that the trans sex workers who made the allegations had met with U.S. prosecutors.
The retired police sergeant in Chicago, who has not been named by the Tribune, has not been charged in connection with the alleged sexual assault. Police investigating the assault haven’t received DNA results yet. However, the sergeant was ordered to relinquish his police powers in April following an internal investigation. About a week later, he retired, as he said he planned to months before the investigation, the Tribune reported.
The same man had been recommended for firing two decades ago when an Internal Affairs Division investigation found that he told a convicted felon he’d put him back in prison based on bogus drug charges if he didn’t hand over a gun. The man did not have a gun when police confronted him, but the cops insisted he produce one in five days, as the police department was focused on removing illegal guns from the streets. The officer only received a 30-day suspension.