Phoenix police profiling targets trans women, sex workers

Police profiling is often discussed in the context of racial profiling, but police profiling is even more prevalent for transgender individuals of color. Transgender women of color are often profiled simply for going about daily activities – in Phoenix, they are often profiled on the basis of prostitution while doing no such thing. Monica Jones, a prominent transgender advocate and a woman of color, was found guilty of “walking while trans,” or rather, she was profiled, harassed and assumed to be a sex worker because she is a transgender woman.

Jones was arrested for “manifesting an intent to engage in prostitution” while accepting a ride from undercover police officers to her local bar. She maintains that they approached her; ultimately, she was convicted simply for accepting the ride.

According to Phoenix law, one can be arrested under the manifestation ordinance if he or she repeatedly stops to talk to others, inquires whether or not someone is a police office or waves at cars. Naturally, all of these acts can be totally unrelated to prostitution. Evidently, these stringent laws leave much room for interpretation and resultantly, often work to harm those who are most marginalized.

Just one day earlier, Jones was protesting a program that also disproportionately harms transgender individuals and sex workers. Project Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation – commonly referred to as Project ROSE – is a Phoenix program which purports to “help” sex workers avoid criminal charges, yet most who participate in the program are more often than not jailed when they “fail” the program.

Those charged with the manifestation ordinance are brought to a church to speak with police officers without a defense attorney and if they do not meet the attendance requirements –70 percent don’t, according to the Huffington Post – they are jailed.

Incidentally, Jones was picked up by one of the police stings involved with Project ROSE.

According to a case study on transgender police profiling by Make the Road New York, 61 percent of transgender people reported being harassed by the police. Further, the transgender community faces three times more police violence than non-transgender individuals. Most transgender individuals interviewed reported being profiled as a sex worker even when going about daily activities.

Being arrested for “walking while trans” is a bias against both transgender individuals and against sex workers. It is a bias against the former because transgender individuals – especially trans women of color – are often assumed by police officers to be sex workers.

Police profiling requires some sort of suspicion that positions transgender women of color as being inherently suspicious. This assumption rests on blatant transphobia and perpetuates the notion that transgender individuals are considered “other.”

Project ROSE is also based on the assumption that one can only help sex workers by treating them as criminals rather than victims, and furthermore, by imprisoning sex workers rather than giving them access to rehabilitation.

Whether or not someone chooses to go into sex work because of necessity or choice is irrelevant. Even when people choose to engage in survival sex work, they do not deserve to be criminalized. If it is truly out of necessity, then sex workers ought to be equipped with resources.

Police bias is one of the major problems facing the LGBTQ-plus community, and particularly the transgender community. Ultimately, ignoring the plight of violence and discrimination against transgender individuals is ultimately an impediment to bringing about equality for – and within – the LGBTQ-plus community.