News Sexual Health

The NYPD Finally Changes Condoms-as-Evidence Policy, But Leaves Giant Loophole

Martha Kempner

In the wake of public pressure and impending legislative action, the NYPD has finally changed its policy of allowing officers to seize condoms as evidence of prostitution. But the revised policy contains a loophole that advocates fear will continue to inhibit condom use.

On Monday, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) announced that it would no longer seize condoms from suspected sex workers and use them as evidence of prostitution. However, the new policy still allows officers to seize condoms and use them as evidence in cases involving promoting prostitution or sex trafficking. Advocates, many of whom have been working for years to change this policy, say the move is a step in the right direction but that it doesn’t go far enough.

As Rewire has been reporting over the last few years, the NYPD has had a long-standing policy under which police officers not only viewed possession of condoms (especially multiple condoms) as evidence of prostitution but were also allowed to take condoms from those suspected of selling sex. Advocates have argued that condoms are evidence only of an intent to be safe, and public health experts have noted that taking condoms away from those at high risk can only serve to increase their chances of experiencing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Many law enforcement officials backed away from the policy in the wake of public criticism. Last June, for example, former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes sent a letter to then Police Commissioner Ray Kelly explaining that his office would no longer use the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution or “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.” He asked that police in Brooklyn stop confiscating condoms. In addition, state lawmakers have been working to change the policy through legislative action. In fact, a bill attempting to do so has been introduced every year for the last 15 years, but the NYPD has always opposed such legislation, and the bill has failed to pass each year. The newest version of the bill was introduced by Rep. Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) and Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn) and seems to have some momentum in Albany. In response, the NYPD said earlier this month that it would look at the proposed legislation and review its policy.

In announcing the revised policy, Police Commissioner William Bratton said, “The NYPD heard from community health advocates and took a serious look at making changes to our current policy as it relates to our broader public safety mission.”

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio commented on the policy change at an unrelated event on Monday, saying, “A policy that inhibits people from safe sex is a mistake and dangerous. And there are a number of ways you can go about putting together evidence [without condoms].”

Advocates, however, fear that the revised policy still inhibits people from practicing safe sex, because it still allows officers to confiscate condoms when someone is suspected of bigger offenses like promoting prostitution or sex trafficking. Andrea Ritchie, a coordinator at Streetwise and Safe, told the Associated Press, “This is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t go far enough and creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. We will be monitoring the NYPD carefully to see how they implement this policy.”

Corinne Carey of the New York Civil Liberties Union agreed that the new law was not what her organization had wanted. She told the AP, “This is really too limited for us to be happy about it. The message needs to be that condoms aren’t criminal.”

Commentary Violence

The Justice Black Women Seek Will Not Be Found in the Courtroom

Monica Simpson

It is with a heavy heart that I celebrate the Holtzclaw verdict—not just because I struggle with the relentless focus on carceral solutions, but also because the effects of the trial are far from over.

Like many people, I waited with bated breath to hear the verdict in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw. Holtzclaw is a former Oklahoma City police officer who was convicted of assaulting women in his community while on patrol. Twelve of those women and one teenager bravely stood up in court and testified against him. Holtzclaw targeted them on suspicion of drug possession, they said, and then forced them into sexual acts.

I wanted to believe that he would have his day of reckoning.

I hoped these courageous women would feel that people believed them and took their pain seriously, that it was worth all they went through in order to see him pay for his crimes. I saw them as amazing women, as sisters, mothers, and grandmothers.

But I also know they are Black women and the system has not always been a place where we have seen justice. So I waited.

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One victim said, “I did not think anyone would believe a Black woman.” I can see why she would feel that way. There is so much rhetoric that says Black women can’t be trusted. Laws are created that tell Black women when we can and cannot become mothers; policies are pushed based on stereotypes and insults about Black women as parents and as people. And when we are abused or assaulted, we are often ignored, devalued, or delegitimized by health, legal, and political systems.

Black women know what is best for our lives, and yet there are countless barriers put up to deny us the ability to make our own decisions or to seek help and support when we need it.

For every Black woman who reports a rape, there are at least 15 who do not. We are portrayed as promiscuous. Our lives are treated as less than—like we don’t deserve respect or that our voices do not need to be heard. We are both preyed upon and made more vulnerable because we exist at the intersection of racism and sexism.

There is so much violence against us in our communities: A small study found 60 percent of the Black women surveyed had experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. And advocates consider intimate partner homicide one of the leading causes of death for Black women between the ages of 15 and 35. In spite of the rampant cruelty and violation of Black women, these issues have not been at the forefront of the conversations about the lives of Black people. While we may not be killed by police at the same rate as our men and boys who are dying in the streets, ignoring or making invisible the violence aimed at Black women erases our pain and silences us in our own community.

There are likely other women out there who were hurt by Daniel Holtzclaw who did not come forward. They were too afraidthat they would not be believed and could not hope for any justice. When a young woman who was assaulted by Holtzclaw at 17 was asked why she did not report the rape, she answered, “What kind of police do you call on the police?”

The issue of police brutality is finally getting more attention due to protests and organizing by Black men and women throughout the country, and yet the very real issue of sexual violence by law enforcement is often left out of the conversation.

The unfortunate truth is that civil rights movements and protests responding to violence in the Black community have often prioritized the stories and the pain of men and ignored the suffering of Black women. This is in spite of the fact that the second most reported misconduct against police after excessive use of force is sexual misconduct, according to a 2010 report from the Cato Institute. About 9 percent of the total reports made regarding the inappropriate actions of police that year—the most recent year for which data is available—involved some kind of sexual misconduct. More than 350 officers were implicated in complaints that involved forcible non-consensual sexual activity such as sexual assault or sexual battery, many of them repeat offenders like Daniel Holtzclaw.

The majority of survivors who report rape and sexual abuse by police are women of color. This is a part of police brutality that this case brought to light and that Black men and women have to ensure does not get pushed aside in the media and in the movement for Black lives and racial justice. As we work to ensure that we #SayHerName and talk about women who have been killed, we also must talk about the sexual violence Black women experience. This violence comes at the hands of law enforcement when they are pulled over, detained, or in holding, as well as when they are in prison, where there is an epidemic of sexual misconduct.

Sadly, this violence extends to the juvenile justice system. Young girls of color are disproportionately incarcerated in juvenile facilities. A significant number of the young people in foster care and youth detention facilities experience sexual abuse and violence prior to entering the system, and then they are re-victimized.

Holtzclaw went after especially vulnerable women of color who are too often looked down and demeaned by our society and our systems, and who he knew feared what could happen if they were charged. This made his threats, his manipulation, and his violence that much more effective and horrific. Multiple women testified that he said he would let a charge drop or threatened them with jail time if they didn’t comply. This also speaks to our broken criminal justice system. When a woman who is struggling with addiction and using drugs can be assaulted because she is afraid of being caught up in the system, it becomes even clearer that the war on drugs is a war on women of color.

It is with a heavy heart that I celebrate this verdictnot just because I struggle with the relentless focus on carceral solutions, but also because the effects of this case are far from over. It is not over for the women that Holtzclaw was accused of hurting. They likely will still be grieving and healing for many years. And it is not over because Black women must continue to work not only to reform a system where justice too often eludes us, but also work to put an end to rape culture and the myths that dehumanize Black women. This is the justice that we seek and it will not be found in a courtroom. It will be found in the conversations and protests and the organizing and advocacy that we do to create social, cultural, and policy change.

Reproductive justice advocates need to continue the work to take down the billboards that disparage Black women and our families and make sure the media does not ignore violence against Black women and girls.

We must trust Black women and believe the experiences they share are valid.

I am grateful to the multiple women who bravely spoke out and pushed for the justice that has eluded too many of us. But they should not have to feel or be alone in calling out the violence that Black women face. Black women and Black men need to stand up and speak out and shut it down to ensure that the lives and the well-being of Black women and girls are not ignored in the efforts to ensure the rights, safety, and dignity of the Black community.

Commentary Politics

Terrorism Is a Problem, But Immigration Isn’t the Reason Why

Tina Vasquez

It should concern us all that conservative candidates are conflating terrorism with immigration. This sort of rhetoric breeds hysteria that targets already vulnerable populations—not to mention it’s simply irresponsible and intellectually lazy.

The only real takeaway from Tuesday’s GOP debate in Las Vegas was that Republican candidates intend to use terrorism and ISIS as a pretext to place additional restrictions on immigration, and to use national security as a tool in their efforts to target, criminalize, and persecute Black and brown immigrants currently residing in the United States.

It should concern us all that conservative candidates are using recent terrorist attacks as justification to further dehumanize and exploit undocumented people. Terrorism is a problem, but conflating terrorism with immigration breeds hysteria that targets already vulnerable populations—not to mention it’s simply irresponsible and intellectually lazy.

Sadly, that was exactly the line of thinking on display Tuesday.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul called for stricter controls on those who immigrate to the United States, along with stricter border security. Specifically, he would like to ban immigrants from 33 primarily Muslim countries, because as Paul said, “terrorists have been using our legal immigration system.” This is a reference, I’m guessing, to the K-1 nonimmigrant visa, also known as the “fiancé visa,” which enables someone from another country to travel to the United States and marry their U.S. citizen partner within 90 days. Tashfeen Malik, one of the accused shooters in the San Bernardino massacre, was able to enter the United States with such a visa and wed Syed Rizwan Farook.

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Donald Trump called for “closing parts of the Internet” because “ISIS is using the Internet better than we are using the Internet.” This is the same man who wants to ban Muslims and non-American Muslim refugees fleeing ISIS from coming to the United States; deport the 11 million undocumented people currently residing here; and close off the country’s southern border with “a great wall.”

Ben Carson said he is in favor of monitoring United States-based mosques for “anti-America sentiment,” saying at the debate, “We have to get rid of all of this [politically correct] stuff.” He then asserted that being worried about being referred to as Islamophobic is “craziness.” It seems Carson is operating with the same definition of free speech as many Internet trolls: the right to say dangerous, dishonest things with zero repercussions.

Perhaps one of the most inflammatory comments of the evening came from Mike Huckabee at the undercard debate, who said Muslims should welcome outsiders to survey their mosques. “If Islam is as wonderful and peaceful as its adherents say, shouldn’t they be begging us to all come in and listen to these peaceful sermons? Shouldn’t they be begging us all to come and listen and bring the FBI so we’d all want to convert to Islam?” the former Arkansas governor said.

Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for a “sweeping data dragnet” targeting people who are not American citizens and who are applying to come into this country. This would allow the U.S. government to monitor their private social media interactions. Carly Fiorina shared similar sentiments, saying that if parents and employers are checking social media, why can’t the U.S. government?

Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) would like to give the FBI, the NSA, and other intelligence agencies “all the resources they need to keep us safe” and “monitor un-American activities in our country.”

On the largest public stage, for arguably the most important role in the world, Republican presidential candidates promoted Islamophobia and xenophobia, while not-so-discreetly implying that U.S. citizens’ fears of “the other”—Black and brown immigrants currently residing in the United States—are warranted.

For years, conservatives against immigration have pushed forth the narrative that the Mexican and Central American asylum seekers crossing the border are “potential terrorists” and a threat to national security. This unfounded theory has especially gained momentum in the state of Texas, despite the fact that a bulk of those attempting to enter the country are young women and their children fleeing violence in their countries of origin.

Throughout the evening, it wasn’t uncommon for candidates to discuss immigration and terrorism in the same terms, as if they go hand-in-hand. In an interview about terrorism before the debate, Paul told CNN that “our system is overwhelmed” and there are “11 million people said to be illegal in our country … We have a system that is so broken that I don’t think we can stop any terrorism.”

Our immigration system is broken, primarily in the way that it isn’t working. Americans routinely call for undocumented immigrants to “get in line” or come here “the legal way,” while not understanding the bureaucratic bullshit, cost, or time that it involves. The average wait time for someone from Mexico to become an American citizen, for example, is 18 years. That is 18 years of paying taxes and contributing to this country with no access to services, no protections, and no promise that they won’t be ripped from their family and placed in deportation proceedings. Any effort to alleviate these conditions gets blocked in court. The answer to a broken immigration system is not to complicate and lengthen the process even further on account of terrorism, especially considering the Department of Homeland Security already debunked other ties between immigration and terrorism last year.

After the Paris terrorist attack occurred, 31 U.S. states refused to accept Syrian refugees, despite the fact that all of the attackers were believed to be EU citizens. Farook, the second suspected shooter in the San Bernardino attack, was also an American citizen. Let’s not forget the reason that GOP candidates are calling for the monitoring of private social media of non-American citizens is because Malik was widely reported to have expressed support for “jihad and martyrdom” on Facebook, but the FBI announced Wednesday that was false.

Undocumented immigrants are already widely believed to have no constitutional protection, so allowing the U.S. government to monitor anything it deems to be “un-American” is troubling. Who, specifically, gets to dictate what is “un-American” and on what grounds? I have no doubt this will bleed over into monitoring the social media of undocumented activists, some of whom self-identify as “radical” in their politics. Is protesting against the U.S. immigration system that deports “low-priority” migrants in record numbers un-American? Is criticizing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for profiting off the imprisonment of mothers and their children un-American? Is simply being an immigrant un-American? I thought that was America’s most beloved narrative. When starry-eyed politicians proudly say, “We are a nation of immigrants,” I guess pride is only elicited when we are talking about European ones.

Recent terrorist attacks are being used as an opportunity by GOP candidates to tie terrorism to immigration entirely, further stigmatizing the already vulnerable population of undocumented immigrants and refugees currently residing in the United States. The message being sent is: It’s OK to terrorize “potential terrorists.” Creating a new version of the House Un-American Activities Committee must be what Trump means when he says he’s going to “make America great again,” and it’s not an America I want to live in.