In the state of Alaska in the United States, a legal battle over the right of police officers to engage in sexual conduct with sex workers before arresting them is bringing public attention to a national issue. Two bills HB112/SB73 introduced earlier this year would add an addendum to expand the definition of sexual assault to include instances of “peace officers” engaging in sexual conduct or penetration with a perpetrator that they are in the process of investigating.
CUSP (Community United for Safety and Protection) is a group of current and former sex workers and trafficking victims working towards safety and protection of sex workers in Alaska. Tara Burns, a member of CUSP, stated that the issue of sexual assault by police officers during stings became apparent during her 2012 research study: People in Alaska’s Sex Trade: Their Lived Experiences and Policy Recommendations. Her study found that 26 percent of the studies 40 participants and 60 percent of the sex trafficking survivors had experienced sexual assault at the hands of a police officer. A study participant talked about her own experience:
“I knew a couple ladies who went to go see a guy together who turned out to be a police officer. He gave one of the girls that was only 19 at the time alcohol he also received oral sex from one of the ladies and then arrested her and said that he had seen her reviews online and wanted to see for himself what it was all about. She got a prostitution charge.”
Burns says “the statistics really jumped out at us because the (now former) Attorney General had just released a report from his trafficking task force saying that their number one goal was to increase trust between law enforcement and sex trafficking victims.” Initially the law enforcement response to the introduction of the bills was to deny that the practice ever happened, and if a case of it did occur the officer would be fired and be decertified. More recently, however, the Anchorage Police Department has decided to fight the bill claiming that “in-very limited circumstances” they want to reserve the right for police to have sexual contact with those they are investigating. The defense is that with such legislation, sex workers would be able to “cop-check” by demanding a police engage in sexual touching before accepting payment, thus avoiding criminal charges.
The bill is currently waylaid in committee hearings as focus turns towards the state budget, and one of the bills’ sponsors Senator Berta Gardner has stated that she has decided ‘to focus her efforts elsewhere’ but the issue continues to gather public attention. CUSP contracted a phone survey in 2016 with 904 registered voters which showed that 90.2 percent of respondents agreed that it should be against the law for police officers to have sexual contact with those they are investigating. Despite faltering on the legislative front, the issue has been raising significant media attention with articles in mainstream outlets such as Glamour Magazine and Vice. Public awareness of these practices in Michigan and Hawaii also drew outrage, and both states have created specific legislation outlawing it in response.
Burns says she hopes that Alaskan lawmakers will use their common sense to stand up against this practice. She sees the negative effects of this practice as many. “For individual sex workers it can leave them with PTSD or make them just take a plea deal out of shame. Overwhelmingly it makes people feel like the justice system is a farce and police are not there to address real violent crimes. Public safety is negatively impacted because we have serial rapists and sex traffickers who are free in our communities because sex workers don’t make these reports to the people who have used them for free sex before arresting them,” Tara concluded.