Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Public defender, health officials weigh in on police condom policy

An official with the San Francisco Public Defender’s office and the city’s public health director commented this week on the San Francisco Police Department using condoms as evidence of prostitution.

Meanwhile, the international Human Rights Watch organization released a report today (Thursday, July 19) on policies in San Francisco and other cities.

Police Chief Greg Suhr issued a department-wide bulletin last week reminding staff not to confiscate unopened condoms. However, in the document, he repeated remarks he’s made previously that police may still use photographs of condoms as evidence in vice cases.

Bob Dunlap, a felony manager for the public defender’s office, said in an email this week that practice is “contrary to common sense.”

“They’re sending a mixed message,” Dunlap said. “By giving the condoms back they are encouraging sex workers to use them, but by using the fact of possession against them they are discouraging such use.”

Reports of police confiscating condoms have raised concerns about people being less likely to carry them, thereby putting people at greater risk for HIV transmission.

Among other points, Dunlap said, “It’s ironic to prosecute prostitution cases in the name of public health in a manner which creates a much larger public health danger.”

Dunlap also added, “What if a person allowed to keep their condoms is subsequently stopped and searched – can the same condoms be used against them again?”

As Human Rights Watch notes in the report, “Sex Workers at Risk, Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in Four US Cities,” many of San Francisco’s anti-prostitution efforts have been geared toward massage parlors.

Dunlap suggested even if that work is designed to crack down on human trafficking, using condoms to prove prostitution cases isn’t worth it.

A trafficking case “that hinges on the existence or absence of condoms is weak to begin with,” he said. Additionally, he said, “The marginal benefit of the evidence is outweighed by the overwhelming need to stem the flow of deadly disease transmission in places such as this.”

Public Health Director Barbara Garcia also expressed concern about photographing condoms.

In an interview, Garcia initially declined to comment about the bulletin since she hadn’t read it or spoken with police about it, but she said, “I’ll definitely look into it,” and “any time people are afraid of using protective things … that’s a concern.”

However, she said she has “confidence” in Suhr and how the SFPD implements its policy on condoms.

“Our police chief is pretty on the ball when it comes to these kinds of issues,” Garcia said.

— Seth Hemmelgarn, July 19, 2012 @ 9:29 pm PST
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