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San Francisco Sex Workers Reporting Violent Crimes Won't Face Arrest

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- In a pioneering move, San Francisco has adopted policies that shield sex workers who are reporting a violent crime from being arrested for prostitution. The policy will allow sex workers reporting abuse by law enforcement officials to come forward without fear of arrest.

The 'Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers' policy is the first of its kind in the United States and is designed to ensure that sex workers who are the victims of a violent crime, or witnesses to such a crime, do not get arrested in the process of reporting the crime.

The policy change comes as San Francisco and other cities across the country are considering decriminalizing prostitution.

Related: San Francisco Sex Workers Battle For Rights, Legitimacy

Sex worker rights organizations and San Francisco's Department on the Status of Women have spent years crafting the policy with local law enforcement.

The San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco District Attorney's Office have now adopted policies that ensure that sex workers reporting a violent crime won't be arrested or prosecuted for misdemeanor prostitution and drug related offenses.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said the policy aims to increase public safety.

"If we fail to prioritize this population's health and safety they will not come forward and work with law enforcement as witnesses and victims of violence," Gascón said.

The District Attorney's Office policy states that their office "will not prosecute persons for involvement in sex work or other forms of sex trade when they are victims or witnesses of sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, assault, kidnapping, threats, blackmail, extortion, burglary or other violent crime."

Minouche Kandel, the director of women's policy at the city's Department on the Status of Women, described the policy as "a major step towards addressing violence against women wary of contacting law enforcement because of their criminalized status."

The policy is seen as a first step to protecting those in the sex industry.

Carol Leigh, a San Francisco-based sex worker and sex work advocate said, "We hope these policies - the first of their kind in the nation - will serve as a model for other jurisdictions where criminalized sex workers face high rates of violence."

This policy change will allow sex workers -- who may previously have feared prosecution -- to report violence, including by law enforcement officials. Abuse by law enforcement has been the focus of public attention after dozens of Bay Area law enforcement officials were accused of, and some criminally charged with, having sex with an underage sex worker.

"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, who have no protections when reporting violence, or experience mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement," said Johanna Breyer, the Executive Director of St. James Infirmary.

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott is also on board with the new policy. In December 2017, the chief sent out a bulletin to all San Francisco police officers reminding them "in light of recent events in the San Francisco Bay Area" that "any officer misconduct against sex workers, including retaliation, coercion or coercive intimate acts, is subject to disciplinary and/or criminal action."

Scott said the new policy formalizes the department's long-standing policy of prioritizing violent crimes and that it aims to "create a climate where all victims and witnesses, regardless of age (juvenile and adult), have equal access to reporting such crimes."

"We understand that many times sex workers are themselves victims of predators and human traffickers," Scott said. "Our policy is written in the spirit of encouraging sex workers to feel safe coming forward to law enforcement, with the knowledge that they will be treated with respect and their concerns will be taken seriously and investigated."

By Hannah Albarazi - Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.

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