The San Francisco Police Department will no longer take photographs of condoms or mention them in police reports in prostitution cases, ending the city's practice of using condoms as evidence in such cases. A bulletin will be released by the end of this week, a department spokesman said Tuesday, January 8.
Sex worker advocates, public health officials, and others have expressed concerns that using condoms as evidence of prostitution discourages people from using them, thereby putting them at greater risk for HIV and other diseases.
The SFPD was criticized this past summer after the Bay Area Reporter found contradictory policies within the department over the seizure of condoms from people suspected of prostitution. Police Chief Greg Suhr later announced that officers would no longer confiscate condoms as evidence of prostitution and issued a bulletin to department personnel. However, condoms could still be photographed.
The latest change comes after officials from the SFPD met September 20 with representatives of the district attorney's and public defender's offices, the Human Rights Commission, public health officials, and others to discuss the policy.
In a September 28 email to HRC Executive Director Theresa Sparks, Suhr, who wasn't at the meeting, said, "... [I]n light of the DA/PD's agreement not to allude to condoms in any way (up or down) as an indicator of any criminal conduct, we will no longer be even mentioning the possession of and/or taking photos of condoms (we had long since stopped seizing them as evidence)."
Suhr's message refers to the DA's and public defender's offices. In an October 31 letter to Sparks, District Attorney George Gascon included an agreement between his and the public defender's staffs that from October 1 through December 31, in misdemeanor cases involving prostitution charges, no argument would be made "regarding the presence or absence of condoms." Gascon said the impact of the policy change would then be reviewed and "[b]ased on the outcomes we will determine the appropriate next steps."
It appears that Suhr's message hadn't made it to everyone in his department.
Officer Carlos Manfredi, a police spokesman, said there'd been no policy change regarding photographs of condoms when the B.A.R. spoke with him last week and told him of the other agencies' agreement, of which he hadn't been aware. The interview was before the paper knew about Suhr's email.
Sparks shared Suhr's email this week. In an interview Tuesday, after the B.A.R. had asked Manfredi about the message and passed it along to him, he said a bulletin was "in the process" of being prepared. He didn't know how people in the department were supposed to know about Suhr's September message when a bulletin hadn't been issued.
In a subsequent email Tuesday, Manfredi said, "In light of the district attorney and public defender's agreement not to include condoms as an indicator of any criminal conduct, Chief Suhr has approved these changes and a department bulletin is in its final process to be released by the end of this week. No condoms will be photographed or mentioned in police reports in regards to prostitution."
Elizabeth Hilton, managing attorney in the misdemeanor unit at the public defender's office, attended the September meeting. Told Tuesday of the pending bulletin, Hilton said, "That's wonderful, because that's really what we were trying to accomplish. That's very exciting."
In June, Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said prosecutors "would never charge a case simply because someone is in possession of condoms" and said use of condoms as evidence was rare.
"A vast majority of prostitution cases brought to our attention are either not charged, dealt with at the neighborhood courts, in the community justice court, or lead to a successful completion of the SAGE program and are dismissed entirely," he added, referring to the group Standing Against Global Exploitation Project, which he said aims to "educate and help prostitutes who are in a detrimental situation."
In response to news of the pending bulletin, Sparks said, "I think that's great, and I think it's going to benefit everyone in San Francisco."
Sparks said there would be another meeting "to sit down and memorialize [the policy change] with everybody to make sure everybody is on the same page."
Naomi Akers is executive director of San Francisco's St. James Infirmary, which offers medical and social services for sex workers. The nonprofit was represented at the September meeting. Asked in an interview in late December whether she had heard of clients' condoms being used against them during the 90-day period, Akers said, "There's been no real comment one way or another. We haven't done outreach on it." She also said, "We were asked not to publicize the period" while it was in effect.
In July, the international nonprofit Human Rights Watch released a report on San Francisco and some other cities' policies around using condoms as evidence of prostitution.
Sparks said the local change could have an impact beyond San Francisco.
"Based on what we do, it potentially could become nationwide policy in major urban areas," she said.
More changes could be coming in California. Gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) recently indicated he's interested in addressing the issue statewide.