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SFPD and sex-worker advocates at odds over sanctuary-like policy

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(From left) Leticia Brown, Stephany Ashley, Anita Durt O’Shea, Aria Said, Juba Kalamka, and Kalash KaFae MagentaFire pose for a portrait in the colorful lobby of St. James Infirmary, a sex-worker advocacy group, in the Tenderloin District. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Sex-worker advocates and police in San Francisco are at odds over how officers should be required to deal with people who are simultaneously victims of crime and involved in the illegal sex trade.

Since 2014, San Francisco’s law enforcement and sex-worker advocates have been negotiating a policy — Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers — that’s aimed at encouraging sex workers to come forward to police without fear of retaliation. In general, most sides are in agreement on the policy, including the Department on the Status of Woman.

Much like The City’s sanctuary policies that protect undocumented immigrants by barring police from reporting them to immigration authorities, the sex-worker policy would protect sex workers who report crimes to police, as well as instances in which police take advantage of sex workers.

“Our goal with that specific policy was to make it so they could come forward … [and] would be immune at that moment, so that only the crime would be taken into account,” said Aria Said, the policy director at the nonprofit sex worker advocacy group St. James Infirmary. Sex workers are often arrested or harassed when they report crimes to the police, Said added.

But now negotiations have come to a head over a small section of the policy addressing when police abuse or exploit sex workers. A number of advocates said as much to the Police Commission last week.

The controversial language reads, “Violence, harassment, coercion or retaliation committed by any law enforcement officer against sex workers is not tolerated and will be investigated, which may result in disciplinary or criminal action. During the course of an investigation or potential arrest, law enforcement may not engage in any type of sexual act with a sex worker.”

Department officials said the language is redundant, since state law and existing policy address the issue. But sex-worker advocates argue those laws and policies have not always been followed, and there is a need to create a specific policy to address the issue of sex workers and police.

“The policy ‘Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers’ is a work in progress to ensure that it conforms to our department policies,” a statement from the department reads. “The big picture is that this policy will serve to educate and remind both department members and sex workers alike that this department will investigate any case involving the victimization of a sex worker.”

The department’s statement stopped short of admitting that police have committed any abuses or any need to punish such officers.

“Since department policy and state law already prohibit the behavior that this language attempts to address, the language was omitted from the draft,” the statement noted.

The case of Jasmine Abuslin, the woman at the center of a sex work scandal in the Oakland Police Department, has opened up the conversation on police taking advantage and abusing sex workers, Said said.

But the Abuslin case, which involved San Francisco police officers who were not found to have violated policy, is not the only instance of such abuse.

In fact, there is proof that the mistreatment of sex workers at the hands of police has taken place in San Francisco, said Alexandra Lutnick, who has studied the issue.

Many sex workers in San Francisco either know someone who has faced abuse or harassment at the hands of police, or have themselves experienced such abuse, according to research Lutnick conducted, including her 2016 book “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains” and a 2009 study.

Lutnick’s 2009 study asked 247 San Francisco sex workers about their experience with police. Twenty-two percent said they have paying customers that are police, and smaller percentages said they have had sex in exchange for not being arrested or have been harassed by police.

The study did not ask when or where the incidents happened, so it has limitations in offering information about police in San Francisco, but it did show the general experience for sex workers across the U.S., Lutnick said.

As for the status of the policy, the District Attorney’s Office has already included such language in their own policies, Said said, even if the police have not.

Still, Police Chief William Scott said at the Police Commission hearing last week that he remains open to speaking with advocates, even if they disagree on a small piece of language.

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