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Police Harassment in Louisiana May Be Increasing the Number of People Dying from AIDS

Police Harassment in Louisiana May Be Increasing the Number of People Dying from AIDS

Written by Tara Culp-Ressler

According to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), aggressive police harassment in New Orleans is directly undermining the city’s efforts to prevent and treat HIV infections. Despite the fact that Louisiana has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the nation — in fact, the number of people dying from AIDS in the state is more than double the national average — the report claims that it “has chosen punishment over public health” for the marginalized communities at risk for infection, such as sex workers and drug users.

Specifically, law enforcement officials are cracking down on prostitution in a way that HRW believes is actually encouraging the spread of HIV. New Orleans is so intent on identifying potential sex workers that it allows cops to prosecute “loitering for prostitution,” an incredibly vague statute that results in arbitrarily targeting people in public. Officers randomly stop people who they deem suspicious and search them for evidence of prostitution — and, if they find condoms, that can be enough for an arrest.

That’s created a culture where some New Orleans residents are risking HIV transmission rather than risking getting caught with condoms. “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 notes.

New Orleans isn’t the only place where this is happening. It’s not uncommon for law enforcement officials to use condoms as evidence of prostitution. Studies have documentedthe harmful effects of this approach in New York City, where police tend to confiscate condoms from LGBT
 adults, 

youth 
of
 color,
 and lower-income 
communities.
 Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC also all have high rates of HIV infection among sex workers who say they’re afraid to carry condoms.

There’s some progress being made. In June, New York became the first state in the nation to pass a law that prohibits police from using condoms as evidence of prostitution-related crimes. The police department in the nation’s capital distributes “condom awareness cards” to community groups working with sex workers and transgender communities, explaining that carrying condoms isn’t grounds for a police search in DC. HRW’s report calls on New Orleans to implement similar policies.

HRW points out that there are several other dynamics in Louisiana that make this a particularly serious public health crisis. The state hasn’t done enough to ensure access to clean syringes, a strategy that’s been proven to reduce the rate of HIV infections among people who use drugs. And Louisiana has particularly high rates of poverty and incarceration, something that has forced more people to turn to exchanging sex for money or drugs. In addition to calling on law enforcement officials to reform their policies for prosecuting prostitution, HRW is also urging Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which would extend health care to an estimated 265,000 low-income Lousianans.

A representative from the city’s police force refuted the allegations in HRW’s report last week. “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,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Aside from any potential connection to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, however, the New Orleans police department may be guilty of other serious violations. It’s already under federal oversight following a 10-month investigation conducted by the Justice Department. According to the New York Times, the federal investigators “found evidence of the use of excessive force on civilians, discrimination, a failure to investigate serious crimes and a startling lack of accountability.”

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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64 comments

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12:08PM PST on Dec 24, 2013

Of course if you are rich, and powerful, you can get away with anything. Disgraced republican Sen David Vitter, of Louisiana got caught soliciting a prostitute, and no charges were filed. Money talks, and crooks walk. I agree, it's time to decriminalize prostitution, and regulate it. It's a waste of time and resources to arrest women, for just having a condom. I would argue that the New Orleans police department is a criminal organization. It has been well documented, that many cases of murder and brutality, by the NOPD, have gone unpunished, and swept under the rug. The real criminal here who should be arrested is the Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is defending big oil against a justified lawsuit, because he is a paid liar, for the dirty oil industry.

4:02AM PST on Dec 23, 2013

ty

12:19PM PST on Dec 21, 2013

Roxanna says: There is no limitation to stupidity....if you really want justice arrest the johns and publicly humiliate them so that police can get back to their real jobs of protecting and serving the public.


Karen says: The cops don’t have more important things to do? Like catching murderers?
Today they’re saying, “There’s too much prostitution” and tomorrow they’ll say, “There’s too much HIV/AIDS.” And you’re the cause.

Both of you are so right on. It is like the stupid drug war. And somewhere, because the police grade themselves by the numbers of certain actions they take each month, how many tickets they issue for speeding, how many condoms carriers they snag, it makes them look good and efficient on paper. It has nothing to do with really being police.

But for every 10-20 prostitutes there is only one john. A couple of johns a month isn’t as good as a couple hundred prostitutes.

Then they also confiscate the condoms, which looks good on paper even if it causes the spread of more disease. Our society is so ass backwards at times.

10:56AM PST on Dec 21, 2013

There is no limitation to stupidity....if you really want justice arrest the johns and publicly humiliate them so that police can get back to their real jobs of protecting and serving the public.

4:23AM PST on Dec 21, 2013

Very strange. Thanks for sharing.

3:19PM PST on Dec 20, 2013

The cops don’t have more important things to do? Like catching murderers?
Today they’re saying, “There’s too much prostitution” and tomorrow they’ll say, “There’s too much HIV/AIDS.” And you’re the cause.

2:08PM PST on Dec 20, 2013

Good grief, what is the problem? Do the NOLA cops need to go back health class? Condoms prevent disease.

7:54PM PST on Dec 19, 2013

Don't care WHY they're doing it. It sounds like an excuse to get into people's business to me. A giolation of our civil rights.

7:08AM PST on Dec 19, 2013

How typically backward.

5:31AM PST on Dec 19, 2013

To the extent that police and public health officials are part of the same government, that government is shooting itself in the foot--discriminating against citizens trying to do what they can to protect themselves from disease. A community service employment program generous enough to provide a living for anyone willing to take advantage of it would be even more help in reducing prostitution than arresting women for suspected prostitution.

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Julie M. Rodriguez Julie M. Rodriguez is an arts, green living, and political writer based in San Mateo, CA. Her work... more
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