Alaskan police are still fighting twin bills winding their way through state legislature — because the proposed legislation would make sexual contact with sex workers illegal.
Anchorage Police Deputy Chief Sean Case traveled to Juneau earlier this year to plead the need for officers to be able to touch sex workers during an investigation, or their cover — and, thus, the case — would be blown.
HB 112 states, in part, “An offender commits the crime of sexual assault in the third degree if the offender … while acting as a peace officer in the state, engages in sexual penetration with a person with reckless disregard that the person is … the victim, witness, or perpetrator of a crime under investigation by the offender.”
“If we make that act (of touching) a misdemeanor we have absolutely no way of getting involved in that type of arrest,” Case told the Alaska Dispatch News.
Under the premise officers have only limited physical contact with prostitutes — such as touching a woman’s breast upon request when posing as a john — Case and his ilk around the nation feel stripping cops of that ability would be detrimental.
In actuality, however, an epidemic of police violence extends tragically into the world of sex work — officer rapes of prostitutes are far from uncommon. Indeed, sex workers will ‘cop-check’ a potential john — requesting contact they know to be illegal in order to determine if the person is an undercover officer, who would at least theoretically not break the law.
But officers frequently do have extensive sexual contact — up to, and including, sexual intercourse — with targets of prostitution investigations.
Maggie McNeill writes for Reason,
“The Alaska bills were introduced through the efforts of sex worker activists, who well know that in every place where sex work is criminalized or even semi-criminalized (and that includes all 50 American states) police and/or their paid informants routinely take sexual liberties ranging from groping to full intercourse with women they're ‘investigating.’ Sometimes they claim this is necessary for ‘gathering evidence’ or (as in the Anchorage excuse above) part of the process of arresting the sex workers. Other times the activity somehow doesn't make it into police reports at all. (Imagine that!) This is exactly why Alaskan activists want the contact prohibited.”
In short, the pompous, self-serving claim police must have what amounts to lascivious contact represents an abuse of power under the color of law — particularly when Case’s argument against the criminalizing legislation can be handily picked apart upon examination.
In the same interview with Alaska Dispatch News, Case asserted, “We are not out there to go out and find that street prostitute. What we're interested in now is the trafficking.”
McNeill rightly notes the dangerous portent in that statement, as Case literally argues the need to be able to further assault victims of trafficking in the interest of solving sex and human trafficking crimes — and the deputy chief isn’t alone in that thinking, on both trafficking and low-level prostitution.
Across the United States, myriad police departments stridently contend the necessity of sexual contact during investigations.
In fact, the Michigan Senate only recently passed legislation backtracking a law in place since 1931 — which grants cops immunity for physical, sexual contact with sex workers in the course of performing an investigation — amending it to assign criminal charges to officers found guilty of that contact.
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“There’s not much to say about this legislation, as it does not impact us. This was not a tactic used by our troopers.”
But sex workers in Michigan beg to differ.
“Although publicly the state police have repeatedly said, ‘We never use that tactic,’ in the sex worker community, we know that’s false,”opined Crysta, a sex worker who runs the Michigan chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Program. “Officers have often had sex with sex workers in Michigan, but they just don’t report it.”
Worse, the proposed amendment does not clearly delineate officer behavior which should be deemed criminal — allowing for charges of “prostitution-related offenses” against cops whom sex workers allege “engaged in sexual penetration while in the course of his or her duties.”
Penetration in no way represents the gamut of ways in which a person can be sexually assaulted — meaning, the Michigan legislation lacks both the teeth to revoke officer immunity in such cases, as well as the spirit of protection for sex workers in which such a law should be enacted.
“In this respect, Michigan's status quo closely resembles one in Hawaii which scandalized reporters and readers three years ago. The legislature tried to repeal a 1970s-era immunity clause for cops engage in prostitution investigations. The police union argued vociferously against the reform, just as they are doing now in Alaska, before eventually dropping their opposition in the face of a tide of popular condemnation. Yet despite that resemblance, most treatments of the Alaskan law don't bother to mention the Hawaiian one.”
Broadlyreported on the apparent epidemic of officers having coercive, investigative, and even forced sex with prostitutes, noting,
“A research study that [Dr. Alexandra Lutnick] conducted in San Francisco found that over 14 percent of sex workers said that they had been threatened with arrest unless they had sex with a police officer, and two percent had been arrested after having sex with an officer anyway.
“Astonishingly, it's not specifically illegal for police officers in many states to have sex with sex workers during the course of sting operations.”
Lutnick lamented, “The reality of some police having sex with sex workers during the course of undercover operations has been in existence as long as selling sex has been a criminal offense.”
Sex worker activists and their supporters condemn the lack of protections and the dearth of accurate reporting on the issue — particularly as the corporate press largely repeats bloviating from police departments on the putative need for officer sexual contact.
Whether or not Alaska and Michigan, or any other state, will make strides to protect sex workers — who, after all, are citizens deserving of the same protections as ordinary citizens — remains to be seen.
In the interim, sex workers will be doubly victimized by a system protecting the authority of officers over their right not to be groped, assaulted, or raped.
“For police officers to go so far as to have sexual contact with people as a means to gather evidence and arrest them and charge them — it's just not necessary,”argues Maxine Doogan, an advocate with Community United for Safety and Protection, an Alaska sex-worker advocacy group.
“It's state-sponsored sexual assault.”