Aggressive police harassment in New Orleans, such as using condoms as evidence of prostitution, is increasingly endangering sex workers, drug users, and others who face higher risks of HIV, according to Human Rights Watch.
Louisiana has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the nation, and its AIDS death rate is over twice the national average. Yet Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) “has chosen punishment over health” among at-risk, marginalized communities.
The organization says authorities are punishing prostitution in the city in a way that exacerbates the spread of HIV. The report shows the NOPD has taken to assertively identifying sex workers. In addition, the department will prosecute “‘loitering for prostitution,’ an offense so vague and broadly drawn that it permits police to consider a wide range of behavior to be grounds for arrest, including where people are, what they are wearing, and what they may have done in the past.”
The report says NOPD officers also look for evidence of prostitution, namely condoms, which can warrant an arrest. The targeting of condom possession has created a climate where sex workers and others are risking HIV transmission.
“Sex workers, transgender women and others at high risk of HIV infection told us that they were afraid to carry condoms and that they sometimes had to engage in sex without protection out of fear of police harassment,” the report outlines.
The practice of criminalizing condoms is not uncommon in major US cities. New York City law enforcement has been criticized for confiscating condoms of LGBT adults, youth of color, and residents of lower-income communities. Police in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington DC - all cities with high HIV/AIDS rates - have also been shown to aggressively monitor condom possession.
Though in June, New York became the first state to pass a law curbing police from using condoms as evidence of prostitution-related infractions. And DC police have begun distributing “condom awareness cards” to community organizations focused on sex workers and transgender communities which explain that condom possession is not an excuse for a police search in the city.
HRW says Louisiana should follow suit with its own laws and programs to alleviate the risks that exist in communities with high HIV rates, including the implementation of an effective syringe exchange program. In addition, the report calls on the city and state to take into account other public health factors that intensify HIV hazards, like the high incarceration and poverty rates in Louisiana.
The southern state is the world’s incarceration capital – twice the nationwide rate, HRW notes. Prison “inevitably interrupts the ability to take one’s HIV medications on a regular basis. Reports from the Orleans Parish Prison indicated delays ranging from two weeks to three months in commencing or resuming HIV treatment.”
Louisiana’s high rate of poverty adds to the need for many people to turn to sex work for money, food, housing, and drugs, HRW says.
“More than half of New Orleans’ 350,000 residents live in or near poverty and the city has the second-highest rate of homelessness in the nation,” the report notes.
The human rights organization urged Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to accept the Medicaid expansion offer within the Affordable Care Act. The move could serve an estimated 265,000 low-income state residents, according to ThinkProgress.
NOPD rejected the charges made in HRW’s report.
“The NOPD takes such allegations very seriously, and conducts thorough investigations into accused officers. Officers found to have violated departmental policy or law are disciplined, and in some cases, suspended or terminated,” a department spokesperson said in a statement.
The department is currently under federal oversight after an investigation by the US Department of Justice “found evidence of the use of excessive force on civilians, discrimination, a failure to investigate serious crimes and a startling lack of accountability,” according to The New York Times.