Berkeley Police Department implements policy changes to protect sex workers

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The Berkeley Police Review Commission, or PRC, recommended changes to a policy that was implemented by the Berkeley Police Department on April 5 and is designed to protect sex workers by allowing individuals to come forward to report violent crimes without fear of being prosecuted for prostitution or misdemeanor drug offenses.

Berkeley’s implementation of this policy was inspired by San Francisco’s “Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers” policies, according to PRC Commissioner Ismail Ramsey. According to Ramsey, exploring a similar change in Berkeley made sense after observing the media attention received from the passing of the San Francisco legislation and the studies that detailed violent crimes against sex workers.

San Francisco was the second in the country to enact this type of policy, according to president of Community United for Safety and Protection Maxine Doogan. According to Johanna Breyer, a co-founder and former executive director of St. James Infirmary, the policy was designed to mitigate the harm experienced by sex workers.

“Our hope for this policy is to reduce the harm experienced by sex workers, in particular, women of color and transgender women engaged in the sex trades,” Breyer said in the San Francisco press release.

According to Ramsey, studies documenting violent crimes against sex workers aided in the commission’s decision to implement changes. One study conducted by the Sex Worker Environmental Assessment Team, or SWEAT, was published by UCSF and St. James Infirmary and sampled more than 200 cisgender female sex workers from 2003 to 2007.

The SWEAT study found that 32 percent of those surveyed reported being physically attacked while doing sex work, 29 percent reported being sexual assaulted while doing sex work, and 76 percent reported a history of being arrested. In this study, of the 174 women who tried to report crimes to police, 37 percent rated their experience as “bad” or “very bad.” Additionally, some reported being threatened with arrest if they did not have sex with the officers.

Of the 174 women who tried to report crimes, more than a third “reported verbal, emotional, physical, sexual abuse by law enforcement,” the study said. Ramsey said that after seeing the studies, it was clear there is a need for sex workers to feel safe.

After enactment of the San Francisco policy, the PRC assembled a Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers Subcommittee that evaluated anecdotal evidence from women coming forward and collaborated with the Berkeley Commission on the Status of Women to formulate the changes. A member of the Berkeley Commission on the Status of Women joined the subcommittee to aid in the recommendations.

Ramsey emphasized that whether someone is voluntarily or involuntarily involved in the work, it should be done safely.

“We want to protect all people in our society from violence,” Ramsey said.

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LangholzSasha‏.

Because of misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that San Francisco was the first place in the United States to enact an immunity law for sex workers. In fact, Alaska was the first state to pass this type of law.