Last year, in Washington, D.C, sex workers took as many as 5 million free condoms from the city’s health department distribution vans. The initiative is said to have helped reduce new AIDS cases.
According to a human rights group, the police in Washington are interfering with the city’s health initiative by singling out suspected sex workers based on the number of condoms they are carrying.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch shared the findings of a report that talks about common knowledge among prostitutes in Washington, as as well as New York, San Fransico and Los Angeles, that there is a “three condom rule”. The “rule” basically means that if the police catch a sex worker with three or more condoms, they will most probably be arrested.
Michael Kharfen who overseas the District health department’s condom distribution program was concerned that this practice of arresting prostitutes based on the number of condoms they carry discourages people from using condoms and increases their risk of exposure to diseases.
Meghan McLemore, a senior health researcher at New York’s Human Rights Watch, also voiced concern saying that “the three condom rule” was “a backward practice.” She also pointed out that “These are very vulnerable people engaging in very high-risk behavior. They should definitely be using condoms.”
Peter Newsham, Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Chief , refuted the notion that officers were using the “rule” to target sex workers, adding that doing that would not be the right thing to do. Newsham spoke about the Human Rights Watch report saying it was not based on facts.
“We stop someone based on reasonable suspicion and we search based on probable cause,” said Newsham. “It’s 100 percent legal to carry condoms, as many as you want… To somehow suggest that the police department is contributing to AIDS is a disservice.”
Newsham shared that when stings target prostitutes, it is usually in response to complaints by residents or Community groups.
One sex worker in Washington shared that if police caught them with more than three condoms and more than $20, it created a problem for them. Another sex worker who spoke on condition of anonymity said that some sex workers just don’t carry or use condoms because of the attention that condoms draw from the police.
The Human Rights Watch report was released just before the International AIDS conference set to start on Sunday in Washington. Human Rights Watch is also looking into allegations that D.C. police hid and misreported sexual assaults.
According to a report by the health department, approximately 14,465 residents (2.7 percent) in Washington live with HIV.