Condoms no longer will be seized from sex workers for use as evidence in prostitution cases, police announced Monday in a move that officials say should help prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases among people at high risk of infection.
The policy change is the latest effort by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton, to revamp some of the policing tactics of the previous administration, which were blamed for the souring of police-community relations.
"I think it's the right thing to do," De Blasio said after Bratton announced the condom decision. "A policy that actually inhibits people from safe sex is a mistake and is dangerous."
Although advocates of the change call it a positive step, they say it does not go far enough toward protecting victims of human traffickers, whose captors could still refuse to give them condoms for fear the prophylactics could be used as evidence by police.
The new policy applies only to three crimes related to the sex trade: prostitution, prostitution in a school zone and loitering for the purposes of prostitution. In those cases, Bratton said condoms will be treated as personal property and returned to individuals upon their release from custody and will not be considered evidence.
Condoms confiscated in sex-trafficking cases will continue to be used as evidence, said Bratton, calling the move a "reasonable approach" that would encourage safer sex without hampering efforts to build cases "against the vast criminal enterprise associated with prostitution."
"It's very exciting the New York Police Department is taking this issue seriously, but we believe it needs to be expanded," said Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York.
Baskin said advocacy groups would continue pressing for a policy that would stop police from seizing condoms as evidence in any prostitution-related crime. "That would really send a very clear message that people are safe to carry condoms," she said.
Still, the change announced Monday marks a victory for groups that have battled more than a decade to prevent the seizure of condoms from sex workers, a practice that is common around the world and that has been the subject of studies by health and human rights groups. A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch on the issue quoted sex workers in New York City as saying police routinely stopped and searched them, often commenting on the number of condoms they were carrying and leading many to believe there were legal limits on the carrying of condoms.
"The cops say, 'What are you carrying all those condoms for? We could arrest you just for this,'" one sex worker, identified in the report as Pam G., told Human Rights Watch.
Since that report, San Francisco and Washington have altered their policies to limit the use of condoms as evidence in prostitution cases, said Emma Caterine, a community organizer for Red Umbrella Project, a New York advocacy group.
Caterine said she hoped New York's move would encourage other major cities to follow suit and motivate state lawmakers to pass a bill introduced last year barring the use of seized condoms as evidence in most prostitution cases.
Critics of condom seizures say the practice is particularly absurd in cities, such as New York, with huge condom distribution programs aimed at preventing AIDS. New York City health officials give out about 40 million condoms each year.
But changing police policy on condom seizures is challenging because sex workers tend to represent marginalized members of society, Caterine said.
"It's targeting especially lower-income women and transgender women," Caterine said, adding that police have been known to search and confiscate condoms from women who are not sex workers but who are "profiled" as sex workers because of where they are walking or how they look.
"These people have had problems getting their voices heard by policymakers," she said. "I hope we're slowly making strides at changing that."