The New York City Police Department announced Monday it will no longer seize condoms as evidence of prostitution against suspected sex workers, a policy for which the department has long received criticism from community activists, HIV/AIDS health advocates, and civil rights organizations.
Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said the NYPD will instruct officers to instead hold unused condoms with other personal items and will return them when the individual is released from police custody in cases of suspected prostitution. However, police will continue to confiscate condoms and use them as evidence in other prostitution-related cases, such as sex trafficking and promoting prostitution.
Community health and sex workers' advocates said the previous policy was at odds with other public health initiatives, such as distributing free condoms throughout the city. And civil rights groups say the policy unfairly targeted transgender women, who they say are profiled as sex workers by police, leading some to fear carrying multiple condoms or any condoms at all.
Legislation that would ban police from seizing condoms finally passed in the New York State Assembly last year after being introduced for over a decade, but the measure has since been stalled.
"The NYPD heard from community health advocates and took a serious look at making changes to our current policy as it relates to our broader public safety mission," Bratton said in a statement Monday. "This is a reasonable approach to targeting the most at risk community as it relates to safer sex practices and continuing to build strong cases against the vast criminal enterprise associated with prostitution."
The policy shift reflects how prosecutors across the city view the issue — with top prosecutors across the city's five boroughs saying that while they either do not use condoms as evidence when prosecuting cases involving prostitution or rarely see prostitution cases go to trial, using condoms as evidence in cases involving sex trafficking, rape, and other situations is important.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., said his office hasn't used condoms in prostitution cases for over a year and welcome the new police policy.
"I have long believed that it is possible to address the use of condoms as evidence in misdemeanor prostitution-related cases without weakening our ability to prosecute serious crimes, like sex trafficking," Vance said.
Mayor Bill De Blasio, at an unrelated press conference, echoed that sentiment, saying in part, "[T]here's a number of ways that you go about putting together evidence. And I have absolute faith in Commissioner Bratton and his team, and they felt that this was not the right way to go, that the previous policy was not the right way to go and that they could be effective in gathering evidence without it. So I think it's the right thing to do."
"A policy that actually inhibits people from safe sex is a mistake and is dangerous," De Blasio said.
Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women, too, commended the decision. "This policy opens the door for individuals in prostitution to stop risking their health for fear of carrying condoms," she said. "It's every individual's right to be able to protect their health and this policy shift under the new NYPD leadership goes a long way in furthering sound public health policy."
The Nassau County district attorney on Long Island in New York has also announced that its prosecutors would not use condoms as evidence in prostitution cases. The issue, however, is not unique to New York. The San Francisco district attorney's office announced last year it would cease using condoms as evidence in prostitution cases.
The policy change was first reported by the Associated Press.