Will DC Police be Held Accountable for Sexually Assaulting Sex Workers?

In November 2018, a trans sex worker anonymously reported that an officer in the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and an officer in Prince George’s County repeatedly used the threat of arrest to coerce them, and other sex workers, into sex.

Four months later, on March 27, 2019, DC Council held the MPD Budget Oversight Hearing. Community members called on Councilmembers to hold MPD accountable for the public funds they’ve used to target Black and Brown people in the sex trade.

Police abuse against people in the sex trade is somewhat of an open secret in the District. Many Black and Brown sex workers have long lists of harms committed against them at the hands of police officers. “I’ve been picked up by a police officer before, and I’ve been told that either you give me [sex] or you’re going to jail,” said Louraca, a Black trans sex worker in DC, during an interview with Media Matters in 2018.

In the same interview, Jessica Raven, who entered the sex trade as a youth after escaping an abusive home, described how police officers are enabled to perpetuate sexual abuse. “Police officers argue that they have the right to have sex with sex workers as evidence of a crime,” she said. “They sexually assault sex workers in order to arrest them.” Across the country, in many jurisdictions it is technically legal for police officers to engage in some form of sexual activity with sex workers in order to criminalize them.

Given the number of these experiences, it’s alarming how frequently police defend the criminalization of sex work by claiming that it keeps people in the sex trade, particularly trafficking victims, safe. More often than not, police are enacting violence against people in the sex trade while failing to decrease sex trafficking at all.

Police records show that strategies to criminalize sex work in order to address sex trafficking are ineffective and disproportionately harmful towards Black people. In DC, seven of the 2,582 prostitution-related arrests between 2013-2017 involved sex trafficking. Meanwhile, national FBI records show that Black youth comprise over 50 percent of people under 18 arrested for prostitution throughout the same timeframe. Police departments funnel public funds into criminalization efforts under the guise of ending trafficking when their own data show that they’re arresting and further marginalizing Black people who are just trying to survive, including Black youth who are being exploited.

In DC, where rent is too high and Black people are losing their homes and livelihoods to wealthier and whiter residents, sex work helps put food on people’s tables. Many sex workers in DC are Black and Brown trans and cis women, trans men, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary people who have experienced discrimination or abuse and have been marginalized from accessing housing, employment, education, and healthcare.

Police officers target Black and Brown sex workers for actions they take to survive, and MPD’s notoriety for violence against sex workers has been well documented.

In 1999, Stephanie Mencimer wrote an article in the Washington City Paper about several sex workers who’d been sexually assaulted by DC officers who solicited them for sex.

In the 2008 Move Along report that surveyed sex workers in DC, of the sex workers surveyed who’d interacted with police, nearly 40% were verbally abused by a police officer and nearly 20% were asked for sex from an officer.

In 2011, an MPD officer who was with the department for eight years got indicted for sexually assaulting several sex workers while on duty.

In the 2015 DC Trans Needs Assessment Report, 15% of trans feminine respondents reported having been sexually assaulted by a police officer.

In 2017, an MPD officer was caught soliciting sex from teenage girls while he was working for the department.

DC police departments continue to get increased funding despite the laundry list of problems and harms caused by their officers. According to DC’s Office of Police Complaints, 1,332 MPD officers used force in 2018, and 90% of these uses of force were against Black people.

Who will hold MPD accountable for this repeated violence?

The MPD Budget Oversight Hearing was on March 27, and the Mayor has proposed increasing the MPD budget while officers continue to harm and exploit Black and Brown people in the sex trade. There are many community members who demand accountability from the MPD, the number one purveyor of violence against Black people in the District.

Dee Curry, a Black trans activist and former sex worker, was among the community members who testified at the hearing to demand an end to police violence and harassment against sex workers. “The interesting thing for me is we have so many unsolved cold cases involving LGBTQ individuals. We have this uptick in gun violence and murders in this city,” Curry said. “And to me, and this is my opinion but I’m almost certain it will be shown when we get the data, the most ‘successful’ crime fighting force in this city is the vice unit against prostitution.”

And as for the report that the anonymous trans sex worker made in November 2018 about being sexually abused by police officers? MPD said they would do an internal investigation, though the progress of the investigation has yet to be shown. Instead, in December 2018, less than a month after the trans sex workers bravely came forward to tell their stories—stories corroborated by video evidence—DC Council gave the MPD a raise.

We can’t let this happen again.

—Jordan N. DeLoach
Organizer with BYP100 DC

Gratitude to everyone who packed the MPD Budget Oversight Hearing— including youth activists from Black Swan Academy, organizers from Black Lives Matter DC, Keep DC 4 Me, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Stop Police Terror Project, and Occupation Free DC, advocates from the ACLU of DC, and so many more.