Once again, cops are arguing that they need to be allowed to have sex with suspects in order to investigate prostitution allegations. And once again, lawmakers and journalists are acting like exploitation and assault of sex workers by law enforcement is a rare occurrence, rather than a national epidemic.
Most people would agree that the deception, the power differential, and the subsequent arrest of sex workers make such contact utterly unacceptable, even if they don't think that it rises to the level of rape. Yet the behavior is common enough to bring police unions to its defense on a regular basis.
This month the fight is in Alaska, where the Anchorage Police Department is opposing two bills that would criminalize "sexual contact" with suspected sex workers. House Bill 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." Deputy Chief Sean Case told the Alaska Dispatch News that the freedom to engage in sexual behavior with people under investigation is vital to doing police work. That's because sex workers can engage in "cop-checking," he says—vetting possible clients by asking them break laws that restrict law enforcement. A suspect might ask him to touch her breast, he explained. "If we make that act (of touching) a misdemeanor we have absolutely no way of getting involved in that type of arrest."
In the same interview, however, Case claimed that police "are not out there to go out and find that street prostitute….What we're interested in now is the trafficking." In other words, Anchorage police are arguing that they must be allowed to molest trafficking victims in order to do their jobs.
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.
Coverage of specific stories on this topic rarely make reference to the prevailing pattern, even when there are other recent examples. Virtually none of the coverage of the Alaska story mentions that just last month a Michigan law that gave cops immunity from prosecution for penetrative sex with people under investigation for prostitution is finally being challenged.
Unlike the Alaska bills, the Michigan state Senate Bill 275 doesn't define this exploitation as a form of sexual assault; it merely allows the offending cop to be charged with "prostitution-related offenses" if the sex worker reports that "the officer engaged in sexual penetration while in the course of his or her duties," prior to arresting her (apparently, groping or other non-penetrative sexual activity are are still allowed).
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.
Every time reformers get a toehold, coverage tends to treat a state's policy or practice as an standalone case. Even when it isn't—as in this report on a similar informal policy in Fort Smith, Arkansas—reporters routinely accept the word of police department mouthpieces that such policies are both unusual and well-intentioned, and that most cops would never think of using them for nefarious purposes because sex workers are exploited "victims" that they're trying to "rescue."
These are not isolated incidents. In August 2015, judges threw out three prostitution cases in Minneapolis because the cops "went too far," arousing the ire of the city's (female) chief public defender. In April 2013, a Pittsburgh-area sex worker's defense attorney tried to get her case dismissed because the cop had waited until the woman had finished giving him a blow job before arresting her; police departments in the Pittsburgh area have a long history of this kind of misbehavior, such as the 2006 case in which state troopers paid an informant to pay for sex at a massage parlor four times before busting anyone (the judge dismissed the case, calling the scheme "sophomoric"). In Pennsylvania, as in Florida and Indiana, police departments actively defend cops caught in this practice, arguing that such tactics are necessary because sex workers are "sophisticated" (while simultaneously being passive "sex slaves," of course).
One of the primary reasons sex work was decriminalized in New South Wales, Australia in 1995 was to eliminate this particular flavor of police corruption. But while Australian lawmakers understood that the way to eliminate the problem was to take away cops' power over sex workers, no American state has yet taken any but the most hesitant and largely symbolic steps in the direction of true decriminalization. And meanwhile, police and their unions continue to unabashedly protest the loss of the option to sexually exploit suspects without repercussions.