Last March, near Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center at NW 19th and Everett, Portland Police stopped a woman they suspected was a prostitute. In her purse, they found three condoms, a lipstick, and her wallet—items that apparently confirmed the cops' suspicions.
"One of them said I was a classic hooker because I had condoms in my purse, lipstick, and a wallet," the woman says. "I said I wasn't guilty because I hadn't done anything wrong, but the vice cops play terrible games with you. One of them asked me, 'How many dicks did you suck today?'"
Despite her protests, the woman was arrested and charged with "loitering with intent to solicit."
"They kept telling me to plead guilty and plea bargain for community service," she says. "But I told them I'd done nothing wrong and pled not guilty."
Though the arrest took place months ago—and the woman was found not guilty in under 15 minutes, according to a social worker—advocates for Portland's sex workers say the incident has since had a big impact on their community: Rumor of a "three condoms rule" is now circulating widely on the streets.
"The three condoms rule is common knowledge among the 100 or so sex workers I work with," says Leslie Bull, a social worker who runs a sex worker outreach group called Savvy.
Sex workers—believing that three condoms is enough evidence for the police—are in some cases avoiding carrying rubbers, which is further jeopardizing their sexual health, advocates say.
Bull says the case from last March is by no means unique, and that Portland cops are actively profiling women in Portland as hookers for carrying condoms or even walking a certain way—using the term "walk of availability" in court as evidence of loitering with intent to solicit. Bull adds that these women, once arrested, are then being pressured by the District Attorney's office to plead guilty and do community service without having their cases heard by a jury. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk did not return the Mercury's calls for comment by press time.
"If I had not worked so hard in this case, she would have gotten convicted for sure," says Bull. "But it's unconstitutional to arrest someone for carrying condoms, or for the way they look, or think, or because of what they might be intending to do."
Crystal—an outreach coordinator for the Portland Women's Crisis Line (PWCL), who's required to withhold her last name as part of her job—says the incident is indicative of an over-zealous, heavy-handed approach by Portland's cops. Moreover, that approach is scaring sex workers into the shadows, where they are more vulnerable to violence and other perils of the trade.
"This makes our work kind of difficult because we're doing outreach work, actually giving out these condoms," she says.
Sergeant Chris Davis, who heads up the downtown street crimes unit responsible for arresting prostitutes, denies that the cops have a "three condoms rule."
"I've never heard this rule before," he says. Davis was working in the Southeast Precinct at the time of the March incident.
"You'd always take condoms as evidence in a prostitution case, but not more than three just for the sake of it," says Davis. "We're looking at behaviors, too. Obviously I don't want prostitutes working in the first place, but I certainly wouldn't discourage them from carrying condoms."
Sergeant Davis says he has thought about working with outreach workers on street prostitution downtown, but Crystal at the PWCL says there are trust issues with her clients to think about when it comes to engaging with the cops.
In the last year, 65 women have been arrested for prostitution in downtown Portland. Police spokesperson Brian Schmautz says this is not an unduly high number, refuting any suggestion that prostitutes are being unfairly targeted.