Transgender individuals don’t have it easy in the District: The last time the District government studied the population, in 2000, it had a 42 percent unemployment rate, and 47 percent of the community didn’t have health insurance.  To make ends meet, many end up in sex work as a last resort, transgender activist Jeri Hughes says—-16 percent nationally, according to a 2011 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality.

For those reasons, one Metropolitan Police Department practice is particularly daunting to the District’s transgender community—-whose relationship with the police force is already fraught.

According a July 19 study by Human Rights Watch, if police find condoms either in a bag or with a person during a stop and search, they can use them as evidence of prostitution—even though there’s nothing illegal about the contraceptive method. These actions discourage sex workers from using condoms, increasing the risk of HIV—a particularly worrisome possibility for transgender people in the District, where the rate is already so high across the population, says Megan McLemore, a senior researcher in the Health and Human Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

But MPD Chief Cathy Lanier remains steadfastly in favor of using condoms as evidence. She says this practice is analogous to using the discovery of several bags of drugs to demonstrate a person has distributed or plans to distribute an illicit substance, as opposed to mere possession. “If we have an arrest, and there is evidence to support the probable cause for that arrest, we have to submit that as evidence,” Lanier says. “We can’t ignore it and that goes for any case. I think we can still give a strong message about practicing safe sex without encouraging something that’s illegal. I don’t think those two things are exclusive of each other.”

Human Rights Watch studied the practice in four major cities across the country. In D.C., it found that MPD confiscated or disposed of condoms at disproportionately high rates. Condoms can be used as evidence of prostitution in the District, but haven’t been the sole cause of arrests, as they can be in Los Angeles and New York City. Condoms have also never been presented as evidence in District courts, McLemore says.

One consequence of the practice is a false rumor that could discourage condom use. “In D.C. we found that there was a pervasive rumor and understanding among sex workers that there is a three-condom rule,” McLemore says. “If you carry more than three, the police are going to hassle you. But nothing is on the books about this at all.”

The problematic three-condom practice intersects with an existing tension between MPD and the transgender community. Some police associate transgender people with criminality because of the significant percentage of transgender individuals engaged in sex work, according to Laurel Westbrook, an associate sociology professor at Grand Valley State University. Twenty-nine percent of the transgender population nationwide has dealt with police harassment or disrespect, according to National Center for Transgender Equality. Human Rights Watch’s McLemore says that the three-condom practice contributes to profiling of transgender individuals by police.

Such profiling reached such a high level in 2007 that Lanier issued a 10-page general order on how to interact with transgender individuals. The District’s police force was one of the first in a major city to create such a guideline. “It’s not just a matter of officers knowing what the policy says,” Lanier says. “They have to be able to interact in role-call training scenarios to demonstrate that they understand.”

Training and reality can present different situations, though. While Lanier says her officers are reprimanded if they don’t comply with the policy, misconduct isn’t always reported. The transgender community remains distrustful toward police, Lanier acknowledges, hindering the frequency with which MPD is notified about police harassment and other types of profiling. Even though Lanier’s heard of only two officers who didn’t follow MPD’s policy, it’s unclear how many incidents have gone unreported.

Thus, a discrepancy remains between what the policy says police ought do and how some perceive MPD actions. For example: Although they are now under legal review, prostitution free zones were a hot bed for harassment against transgender individuals, says Jason Terry, an activist at the District of Columbia Transgender Coalition. Whether it was catcalls or frequent stop-and-searches, he says prostitution free zones may as well have been called “transgender free zones.” “They used them to push trans women in particular into less safe areas which made them more vulnerable to other forms of violence,” Terry says.

Lanier says she has no account of these issues.

Compared to the other cities in the Human Rights Watch study, MPD has demonstrated more sensitivity toward the transgender community and public health issues overall, McLemore says. It’s a sentiment that Hughes agrees with, although she says MPD needs to tone down what she terms its zealous pursuit of transgender prostitutes.

Which is another issue that Lanier says she’d stop if it were brought to her attention. She says every officer, regardless of personal beliefs, has to interact with individuals according to the force’s policy. “When you come to the job, you’re expected to deal with anyone and everyone you come in contact with,” Lanier says. “If you can’t separate your opinions, your biases from law enforcement you’re not in the right line of work.”

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