The NYPD Targets Communities of Color By Criminalizing Sex Work

The NYPD Targets Communities of Color By Criminalizing Sex Work
Photo:Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

ProPublica dropped an in-depth investigation into the New York City Police Department’s criminalization of sex work on Monday, detailing the myriad ways NYPD officers take advantage of the city’s anti-sex work laws to target communities of color.

According to the report, the vast majority of people arrested for prostitution-related offenses in the last four years have been nonwhite, with people of color making up 89 percent of those charged with prostitution and 93 percent of those suspected of paying for sex.

“Suspected” is an important word here since ProPublica’s investigation shows that some officers have admitted to or are accused of being complicit in false arrests. (The city itself has paid out more than a million dollars in compensation to those who claimed they had been falsely arrested for such crimes over the last six years.)

In practice, this approach to policing looks something like this:

Teams of NYPD officers have descended on minority neighborhoods, leaning into car windows and knocking on apartment doors, trying to get men and women to say the magic words: agreeing to exchange sex for money. These arrests are based almost entirely on the word of cops, who say they are incentivized to round up as many “bodies” as they can.

Part what incentivizes this is overtime pay, which officers can secure for themselves as well as many fellow officers by making arrests: “You arrest 10 girls, now the whole team’s making eight hours of overtime,” a retired sergeant named Stephen Antiuk told ProPublica.

But this culture of abusive and racist policing also stems from officials’ misguided attempts to tamp down on sex work by zeroing in on the people who buy sex, rather than the workers who sell it. Mayor Bill de Blasio has emphasized this strategy amid mounting calls to decriminalize sex work, a demand that involves repealing sections of the state’s penal code that allow things like “loitering for the purposes of prostitution”—basically code for “walking while trans”—to be prosecuted as misdemeanors.

Sex workers have long condemned this policy, known as the Nordic Model, because as ProPublica finds (and as others have reported before), it doesn’t work. The model doesn’t stop police officers from arresting sex workers—often trans women and trans women of color—and it only gives them more license to target men of color for arrests.

The profound abuse ProPublica has uncovered in the NYPD is horrifying, but it’s nothing sex workers aren’t already familiar with and working to change. Over the last few years, the movement to decriminalize sex work has been gaining steam, particularly in New York, where Decrim NY, a coalition advocating for decriminalization, has succeeded in getting lawmakers to take their policy proposals seriously and, in some cases, join their cause.

“Sex workers did it,” a woman named Emmy who attended the launch of Decrim NY told Vice in 2019. “Sex workers organized. Sex workers found community in coalition and activism.”

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