Feature: Police use of condoms as evidence against sex workers irks U.S. HIV activists

Updated: 2012-07-24 10:26:00

(Xinhua)

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WASHINGTON, July 23 (Xinhua) -- Activists on Monday blasted law enforcement for allegedly using condoms as evidence against those who work in commercial sex, a practice they say could fuel the spread of HIV.

Speaking Monday at the 19th International AIDS conference in Washington, Acacia Shields, a consultant with the Open Society Foundation, said police in the U.S. and elsewhere are confiscating condoms from sex workers, a practice she said was endangering the lives of those working in commercial sex and their clients.

"What we found was that police routinely take condoms from sex workers," she said.

The issue will receive a significant amount of attention this week at the conference, and more than one panel on Monday discussed the alleged police practice, which advocates say is a major health risk.

Such charges made headlines last week in a report released by Human Rights Watch alleging that U.S. police officers in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. have resorted to the same tactics. Human Rights Watch senior researcher Megan McLemore echoed those sentiments.

"Cops ... are threatening to basically use the condoms against (sex workers) in court on prostitution charges," she said in an educational video on the issue. "They are having unprotected sex with their clients as a result."

New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and San Francisco have reported high rates of HIV among sex workers and transgender women, and targeted HIV prevention among these groups is an urgent priority, activists said.

Anti-AIDS activists found the practice odd because U.S.government-funded programs distribute condoms to those in the sex industry, only to have them taken away by police.

Police, however, deny the charges.

Officer Albie Esparza, spokesman for the San Fransisco police department, told Xinhua in a phone interview that the department's new policy is not to collect condoms for prostitution related offenses.

Gwendolyn Crump, spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, told Xinhua via email that there is "no prohibition against carrying condoms."

Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) spokesman Cleon Joseph told Xinhua via email "We are not aware on this type of activities with LAPD Officers."

Still, a number of rights organizations are making similar claims.

In April, the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center released a report saying that confiscating condoms as evidence from those in commercial sex causes them to either carry fewer condoms or forgo their use altogether in a bid to avoid prosecution. The report said the police practice undermines efforts at AIDS prevention.

And last week, a report by the Open Society Foundation found the same for six countries. The report, entitled Criminalizing Condoms, surveyed sex workers in Kenya, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the United States. It found that such police practices make sex workers more likely to have unprotected sex with clients.

Fifty-two percent of survey participants in the U.S. said they sometimes opted not to carry condoms because of stop-and-search practices.

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