WOMEN

Sex Workers In Alaska Say Cops Are Abusing Their Power To Solicit Sex Acts

All 50 states allow police to engage in sexual contact with suspects. In Alaska, they're fighting back.

08/17/2017 12:50 EDT
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Sex workers in Alaska are fighting to make sexual contact at the hands of law enforcement a criminal offense.

In the fall of 2010, Monica* found herself in need of some quick cash. She had just moved to Anchorage, Alaska to find work, and was saving up for a move back home to California. For Monica, sex work was what “filled in the gaps” in her finances when she was between jobs or simply couldn’t make ends meet with the job she had. 

She told HuffPost that she used the internet to arrange a meet-up with a john at a hotel in Anchorage. Once they were in the room together, Monica says she gave the man a 15-minute massage. The man took off his clothes, and Monica proceeded to rub his body around the elastic of his underwear. She says he then removed his underwear, and Monica undressed and began to masturbate him. After 10 seconds of rubbing his penis, she heard a loud boom – a handful of VICE detectives had broken down the hotel door and were arresting her for prostitution. The john was actually a state trooper,  and a camera crew for the National Geographic documentary series “Alaska State Troopers” was waiting just outside the door as she hurried to dress and tried to wash her hands.

“I made sure to consistently state that I didn’t consent to them using any part of my identity. I had no idea what the cameras were for,” Monica told HuffPost in an interview. She was terrified, and completely caught off guard.

“I repeatedly asked to wash my hands and was not allowed to. I could wash when they were done booking me,” she said. (You can see the show’s segment, and her treatment in it, here.)

Monica’s story is one of dozens compiled by sex worker and sex trafficking victim advocacy group Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP). CUSP advocates have been collecting women’s stories about sexual misconduct at the hands of police since 2014 in hopes that enough evidence will change the current culture of alleged abuse.

Many of Alaska’s sex workers are self-employed and proud to be in the industry; many others are former victims of Alaska’s sex trade and have found a home in the trade. They are often victims of violent crime, and by their own accounts, too often, that violent crime is at the hands of police. 

In Alaska, as in every other U.S. state, it is currently legal for members of law enforcement to have sexual contact with individuals who are under investigation. The line is legally drawn at penetration. 

Victims have recounted being threatened into sexual favors by members of Alaska’s law enforcement, or finding themselves in legal trouble after providing sexual favors to a man presumed to be a client, but who is actually a cop.

“I was crying and really shaky,” Monica said of her experience ― not just because she was deceived by the person she was engaging in sexual contact with, but because there were cameramen recording her every word.

“I honestly thought that this was the moment I had been fearing,” she told HuffPost. ”[I thought I] was about to get murdered, kidnapped, raped... I had no idea why there was cameras there. They had taken my phone and I had no way to call a ride... It still makes me very angry.”

The Lawmaker Trying To Make Police Sexual Contact Illegal

To call the relationship between the Alaska sex worker community and Alaska law enforcement “strained” would be a gross understatement. In many conversations with HuffPost, and in many spaces online, women in Alaska’s sex trade have recounted the horror they face at the hands of police – particularly where prostitution stings and undercover investigations are concerned.

The sex workers HuffPost spoke to allege that they are regularly targets of what they consider to be inappropriate police conduct. But a new piece of legislation introduced in February could change that and, advocates hope in so doing, begin to build trust between Alaska’s police and some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

In February, Representative Matt Claman (D-Alaska) introduced House Bill 112, which would close the loophole allowing law enforcement to engage in sexual contact with anyone under police investigationCurrent Alaska law only classifies sexual contact between a suspect and a law enforcement officer as illegal once a person has been arrested.

Claman and HB 112′s supporters hope that closing this loophole would protect sex workers from sexual contact at the hands of law enforcement during preliminary investigations or inspections. If it passes, Alaska would be the first state to enact this specific legislation. 

Claman told HuffPost that he introduced the bill after connecting with Alaska’s sex worker advocacy groups, and seeing the results of a statewide poll that showed most Alaskans disapproved of law enforcement’s practice of having sexual contact with sex workers. In 2016, CUSP published a research report which showed 92 percent of registered voters in the state had no idea that it was legal for police officers to have sexual contact with sex workers; 90 percent of those voters believe it should be illegal.

Claman says that he drafted and introduced the legislation after speaking to the Attorney General’s office. He told HuffPost that a representative at the Department of Law (the Attorney General’s office) told him they were neutral on the legislation because they thought sexual contact “never happened” in the first place.

Once Claman officially introduced HB 112, though, Anchorage Police Department (APD) Captain Sean Case came out against the bill ― and Rep. Claman told HuffPost that the Attorney General’s office changed its tune and advocated against the bill, too. 

The Department of Law told HuffPost, however, that it has never taken an official position on the bill.

“The Department of Law has not at any point staked a position in support of, nor opposed to HB 112,” a representative told HuffPost. “Based on our legal analysis of the various versions of the bill, we have shared both legal and administrative issues that could arise if the versions thus far offered of HB 112 became law.” 

HB 112 is now currently stuck in a legislative purgatory, and without the support of the Attorney General’s office, Rep. Claman did not seem particularly optimistic that it will move forward. 

The Anchorage Police Department Defends Sexual Contact With Sex Workers 

APD Captain Sean Case has defended law enforcement members’ “right” to have sexual contact with potential sex workers as a necessary part of investigations.

Earlier this year, during discussions of HB 112 and it’s sister bill SB 73, Case used the example of the “cop check” to justify why officers may need to have sexual contact.

″[A sex worker will] ask one simple question: ‘Touch my breast.’ OK, I’m out of the car. Done. And the case is over,” Case told Alaska Dispatch News back in May. “If we make that act (of touching) a misdemeanor we have absolutely no way of getting involved in that type of arrest.”

The Alaska Department of Law also believes that sexual contact ― not penetration, but other forms of contact ― is an unpleasant but occasionally necessary aspect of a prostitution sting. 

John Skidmore, who works in the Department of Law, echoed Captain Case’s comments, telling HuffPost that “undercover investigations into prostitution without sexual contact are successful because prostitutes do not have a bright line test to determine if the person seeking sex for money is an undercover police officer. The concern is that HB 112 would change that and provide prostitutes such a bright line test by insisting the person seeking sex for money engage in sexual contact before any agreement was reached.”

He also said that “is preferable to put together a case without sexual contact,” but “that is not always possible.”

But sex worker advocates, sex workers themselves, and Rep. Claman remain convinced that sexual contact is entirely unnecessary ― and also a huge violation. 

I felt like I was raped ... I feel like he used his badge as a way to have sex with me. Rachel

Rep. Claman brought up that many of Alaska’s sex workers are actually men ― and sexual contact between law enforcement and male-identified sex workers is not something that has been defended by the APD. Situations that are defended seem to be exclusively those in which male law enforcement grope a sex worker’s breast (like Captain Case referenced back in May), or have a woman sex worker grope their penis or apply a condom to “prove” that they are not law enforcement, and thus gain further proof that a woman is engaging in the illegal act of prostitution.

“I’m pretty skeptical, frankly,” Claman said. “One of the more troubling parts about [the practice] is that…there’s actually a large number of sex workers who are male. Sex workers tend to be 30-50 percent male. So that makes me skeptical.”

The case of male sex workers aside, police records obtained by HuffPost show that sex worker arrests in Anchorage are often made without any sexual touching.

One report from September 2009 showed that a woman was arrested just for attempting the “cop check. 

“The defendant engaged in assignation/practicing by demanding that [the detective] expose his genitals to prove he was not a member of law enforcement,” the report reads.

Another report from 2010 had the same explanation: “The defendant engaged in assignation by requiring [the detective] to expose his penis to her to prove that he was not a law enforcement officer.” It appears that the woman was cited with a misdemeanor with no sexual contact required. 

HuffPost made multiple attempts to get comment from Captain Case about these reports and was ultimately told that neither Case nor the APD at large would be participating in any interviews. However, a representative for the department told HuffPost: “APD disagreed with HB 112 as it was written. The language of the bill implied officers were engaging in inappropriate sexual contact with sex workers.”

A deputy in the Fairbanks Police Department told HuffPost that he would not comment explicitly on support or disapproval of the bill, but that he believes “the integrity of the office/position” is the priority for any investigation. 

“Of course in undercover operations there is always a balance between the officers being able to retain the integrity of the office/position while blending in to an illegal environment,” he told HuffPost over email. “I believe that our main priority is the integrity of the police profession and investigative techniques which inherently diminish public trust are...harmful in the long run.”  

While Rep. Claman told HuffPost that he doesn’t support legalizing sex work altogether ― something that sex worker advocates are adamant would make people in the sex trade safer ― he does believe that if Alaska wants to invest in preventing violent crime, it needs to focus on those who are most likely to be the victims of said crime. 

A 2011 study of police “sexual sampling” (defined as police sexual contact with sex workers under investigation of prostitution) of sex workers pointed out that “female sex workers were 18 times more likely to be murdered than women who do not engage in prostitution,” and “are likely to be raped by their clients, perhaps even on a regular basis.”

Sex workers often exist on the front lines of a community’s violent crime, but are “reluctant to report incidences to the police, because they do not think the police will take their complaints seriously, and they worry about the legal ramifications,” the authors of the study concluded.

This is exactly why Rep. Claman wants to shift the label of “criminal” in the sex work industry, and prioritize resources to prevent violent crimes rather than continue the cycle of arresting or abusing already-marginalized groups. 

“I think the priority has got to be on violent offenders. And often sex workers are victims of these violent crimes...but they don’t have the incentive to report these violent crimes to police,” Claman told HuffPost. “If law enforcement wants to rid its communities of violent crime, it should support the population that’s mostly likely to be victimized ― and that starts by not sexually abusing, thereby further traumatizing, vulnerable women in the sex work industry.”

A History Of Alleged Sexual Misconduct 

Captain Case has repeatedly denied that there is any pattern of sexual misconduct within the APD. He told the Alaska Dispatch News in May that accusations of police sexual misconduct are “offensive.” 

“This bill kind of assumes [sexual misconduct] is what’s happening,” he said in May. “I think the whole premise we’re starting from is wrong.”

The Attorney General’s office in Alaska has also made similar comments. In a January letter from Assistant Attorney General Kaci Schroeder to Alaska state legislators in response to the bill, Schroeder wrote that “it is neither legal nor acceptable for a law enforcement officer to engage in sexual conduct with a person that that officer is investigating,” and that there would be consequences for any officer who did so. 

Skidmore clarified to HuffPost that Schroeder was talking specifically about sexual penetration (which is illegal) in this letter, not more general sexual contact (which is legal). 

“Ms. Schroeder was responding to an assertion that a police officer could sexually penetrate (as oppose to contact) a prostitute legally under Alaska law,” Skidmore said. “She is correct that sexual penetration by an officer of a person the officer is investigating is neither legal nor acceptable.”

The state’s Department of Law justifies sexual contact with sex workers with the reasoning that sex workers are all victims of sex trafficking. In 2012, Alaska state law changed its definition of sex trafficking to include all sex work, even if the sex workers are self-employed. That means that a sex worker can be arrested for sex trafficking herself. Since then, punishments for sex workers have become more severe.

Skidmore justified the admittedly “off-putting” practice of sexual contact as necessary to investigating sex traffickers. 

“The prosecution of prostitution and sex traffickers is not easy, but in order to get at these crimes, especially the traffickers, going undercover is an important tool,” Skidmore told HuffPost. “While it can be off-putting to think about an officer engaging in these types of undercover activities, when you are talking about people who traffic women and children, undercover operations are a necessary tool in investigations.”

However, CUSP advocates and sex workers themselves have said that this only further criminalizes and punishes members of the sex worker industry. They are also skeptical that the resources allotted for stopping sex trafficking are actually being used to help people who are trafficked for sex. CUSP advocate Terra Burns is doubtful that many arrests in Anchorage have been made, or many children rescued. During the FBI’s hotly-debated nationwide campaign to arrest sex traffickers and rescue trafficked minors, Operation Cross Country, no children were reportedly rescued in Anchorage, and only three pimps were arrested. (Burns’ FOIA request to see documentation that three pimps were arrested was denied.)

And despite the APD’s insistence that members of law enforcement are not abusing their positions, many women in Alaska, and Anchorage specifically, say that it’s happening. 

In addition to personal accounts of sexual activity with police officers and allegations of police officers blackmailing sex workers for sexual favors that organizations like CUSP have documented, one former Anchorage officer, Anthony Rollins, is currently serving an 87-year sentence for raping women (some of whom were sex workers) while on the clock.

Official complaints obtained by HuffPost also suggest that sexual acts between sex workers and cops have possibly been happening for a long time.

In many of those reports, sex workers were arrested for “agreeing to engage” or “engaging” in sexual acts in exchange for a fee, with law enforcement as witness. Sex workers and their advocates tell HuffPost that this language implies that a sex act occurred between the witnessing officer and the woman in question.

“Based on what multiple women have told me and other court documents I do think the documents imply that the officers were engaging in sex acts,” Burns told HuffPost.

The Department of Law disputes this claim.

One such report from November 2009, embedded below, indicates that a police officer arrested a woman who “engaged in assignation by engaging in vaginal sex for $250.00.” (In the report, the “witness” is the police officer, and it was signed by another officer. HuffPost redacted both of their names, but the signing officer appears as the “witness” in at least five other such documents, and he currently earns more than $180,000 a year in a senior patrol position with the APD. HuffPost reached out to this officer for comment multiple times but did not hear back.) 

Another report from the same year reveals that the same officer “witnessed” oral and penetrative sex before making his arrest. 

“The defendant [sex worker] engaged in assignation by doing oral sex and vaginal sex for $100.00,” the report, signed by the officer, reads. 

The APD declined to comment on these particular cases, but Skidmore was adamant that these reports do not mean that the officers engaged in the sex acts listed. When HuffPost asked how else the officers would have witnessed them firsthand, he admitted that he had no idea, and could only speculate. Skidmore told HuffPost that it was possible the officers had received a warrant to monitor the room in which the act of prostitution took place, but could not say this happened with any certainty. 

Skidmore also reiterated that the sometimes-necessary sexual contact that occurs is only “fleeting” ― or at least it should be, and anyone who crosses that line, like Rollins, would be punished. 

Advocates, however, aren’t so sure. In fact, going as far back as 1981, women have said that officers took their undercover stings too far.

In January of that year, Sharon* was arrested by a male Reserve Officer in Anchorage for “agreeing to an act of sexual intercourse” in exchange for money. In a letter from Sharon’s lawyer written six months later (and embedded below), in which the lawyer is asking for her charges to be dismissed due to entrapment, the details of the arrest sound awfully familiar to those of Monica’s.

Sharon’s lawyer wrote:

After the [financial] agreement [the officer] went into a bedroom, took off his clothes, and lay down on the bed. He reports that he then received a back massage for three to five minutes. He further reports that following the back massage the defendant took off her clothes and masturbated him. Following the masturbation and immediately prior to engaging in fellatio, [the Officer] reports that he then made the arrest.

[The officer] states in his police report that he … requested “some head” and “a screw.”

[The Officer] is a Reserve Officer. He does not get paid for the work he does here with the police. This conduct raises serious questions concerning the individual’s motive for volunteering for such service, as well as his judgmental abilities.

Sharon’s case was dismissed two months later. (See her lawyer’s letter below). 

HuffPost has looked at numerous other citation reports in which a sex worker “agreed” to certain sex acts – in some reports, there are actually multiple officers serving as “witnesses” to these acts.

HuffPost was able to make contact with one of these women, Jackie*. Her police complaint indicates that she was arrested in 2010 for prostitution, and in her Conditions of Release, it was indicated that the arresting officer “grabbed her groin and buttocks.” Jackie confirmed with HuffPost that this happened, but did not want to give further comment.

Another former escort, Rachel, told HuffPost that she once met a man in a hotel room in Anchorage for what seemed to be a normal gig ― he had sex with her “to completion.” However, after they had sex, she began to feel strange when the man kept insisting that she immediately take the cash that he was handing to her.

“I started feeling strange about that,” she said. “I know that a normal client’s not going to do that.”

Next thing she knew, he was trying to arrest her ― but because Rachel hadn’t put her hands on the cash he was trying to give her, she thought on her feet and quickly told him that she’d just done it for fun, and that nothing illegal had happened.

“He looked at me and told me that ‘I’m a very wise woman’ and that he’s ‘proud of me,’” she said, after which she got out of that hotel as fast as she could. On her way out, she saw two uniformed officers standing in the lobby.

“I felt like I was raped ... I feel like he used his badge as a way to have sex with me,” she told HuffPost. She says the same officer ended up calling her three weeks later to try to spend more time with her. 

A National Issue

Documented instances of police sexual brutality are not limited to Alaska. 

Just ask the victims of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, many of whom had been targets of the disgraced officer’s sexual violence because their background in sex work made them especially vulnerable and unlikely to go to police.

Or look at Celeste Guap, the young woman in Oakland, Ca. with whom 30 Bay Area law enforcement members had sexual intercourse starting when she was just 14 years old. (Many articles about Guap’s case state that she was 17 years old when the sexual abuse began, but an official report on her case obtained by HuffPost shows that ”[she] said that she had sex with her first officer at 14.”)

Or the undocumented women who were allegedly sexually abused by a member of the NYPD ― who is still an active member regardless of allegations of sexual misconduct ― in 2013.

Or the 15-year-old girl who was allegedly held at gunpoint and robbed by a former cop in Washington D.C. after he gave her money in exchange for sex. 

Or the many sex workers in Hawaii and Michigan, whose state legislators only recently made it illegal for a police officer to engage in penetrative sex with those under investigation for sex work.

Lauren Chief Elk, a Bay Area-based activist and abolitionist who runs the #NotABacklog campaign to bring awareness to the systemic disregarding of rape kits, told HuffPost that what happened to Celeste Guap, and what’s occurring all over the country, is nothing other than sexual assault.

“That use of power [against sex workers] is rape,” she said. 

 And HB 112 would make that use of power a criminal offense. States have begun to make small changes in this area, but none that would be quite as effective as Alaska’s HB 112.

For example, in 2012, the California penal code was updated with Assembly Bill 2078. A.B. 2078 updated preexisting laws about sexual contact with detained persons in detainment facilities; the language was updated to include a transportation vehicle as a “detention facility.” It also extended the provision to peace officers on top of employees at the facility. A.B. 2078 effectively made it illegal for cops and detainment facility employees to have sexual contact with anyone who has been arrested ― but those under investigation are still not safe from unwanted sexual contact.

Other states have varying levels of punishment for those who have sexual contact with anyone detained in a correctional facility, juvenile detention facility, or hospital, but again, sexual contact can be made with anyone under investigation and it’s totally legal ― and some sex workers and their advocates argue that this kind of contact can be abusive. 

That use of power [against sex workers] is rape. Lauren Chief Elk

“It makes sense that there’s the attitude that, ‘We have to do it for public safety,‘” Chief Elk told HuffPost. “Especially if you look generally at a lot of practices. Law enforcement are sexually assaulting people all the time in the name of ‘public safety.’”  

In fact, Chief Elk said, people all over the country regularly face varying levels of sexual assault or misconduct when they are under methods of investigation like stop-and-frisk programs, TSA checks, and body cavity searches.

Earlier this summer, a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in Georgia after police conducted an invasive drug search on a high school campus in which multiple students were left feeling “sexually violated.” In December, former CNN commentator Angela Rye uploaded a video of a TSA agent pinching her genitals as she held back tears at the airport in Detroit. The mostly non-white and poor women who are victimized by stop-and-frisk programs have suffered humiliation and loss of bodily integrity at the hands of police. On Tuesday, a female state trooper filed a federal lawsuit against Nebraska State Patrol for “medically unnecessary and sexually invasive” exams for female state patrol recruits. On August 10 of this year, charges of official oppression against two deputies in Texas were dropped ― in 2015, they conducted a strip search on Charnesia Corley, who “had her legs up in the air for 10 minutes as deputies searched her for marijuana.” Corley said, “I felt like they sexually assaulted me. I really do.” And on Tuesday, shocking dashcam footage was released that showed the officer “searching” her for 11 minutes.

The instances that involve sex workers, though, are particularly harrowing when we consider that sex workers are already at a huge risk of becoming victims of other violent crimes.

The same 2011 study that found that female sex workers are more likely than other women to be murdered or raped, also found that 68 percent of sex workers in the United States “are diagnosable with post-traumatic stress disorder” due to constant fear of or actual victimization.

Sex workers and their advocates argue that this fear prevents sex workers from reaching out to law enforcement when they are under threat. 

Sex Workers And Their Allies Fight Back  

Members of the sex worker community in Alaska believe that legislation like HB 112 is a productive and welcome jumping off point to make women feel safer. 

The bill would join a recently-passed ordinance that provides immunity to alleged or admitted sex workers who go to police about violent crimes ― the ordinance, which had support from the ACLU’s Alaska branch, will hopefully encourage more women in Alaska’s sex worker industry to report instances of rape, assault, and theft. 

Concerned citizens outside the industry have also expressed their support for HB 112. One Alaska-based former mental health professional, Dirk Nelson, voiced his support via a letter (embedded below), in which he recounts having treated a former cop who fully admitted to having sex with sex workers before arresting them.

Nelson called the cop’s stories ”‘reprehensible,’ ‘outrageous,’ and even ‘criminal.’”

“To grant tacit approval to some of the most empowered persons in our communities to prey on the least empowered, is to exacerbate the injurious inequity and injustice that already exists in so many ways,” Nelson wrote in the February letter. 

Even as HB 112 sits unmoving in the Alaska legislative system, CUSP advocates and current and former sex workers show no signs of giving up, and have committed to building a safe community for sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.

Rachel, who only recently began speaking out about her experience of being deceived into sex with a cop, and whose fear of police retribution is so deep that she’s leaving the state of Alaska, told HuffPost that she believes the legislation will make sex workers feel safer in their communities.

“If we felt like we were in danger, if we felt like we could speak [to law enforcement] on that, it would make things better,” she said. 

Monica, who has since moved to California and tried to put her public violation and humiliation behind her, agreed. 

“I definitely think it will make workers safer and will drive home the fact the the police are here to serve the public,” she said.

“I also believe it will help further define what consent is. Until it passes I believe police are exploiting the very people they claim to protect.”

*Names have been changed

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