Chicago Prostitution Enforcement Focuses On Women Selling Sex, Not Buyers Or Traffickers | WBEZ
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Chicago Prostitution Enforcement Focuses On Women Selling Sex, Not Buyers Or Traffickers

Melinda McMichael says during her 10 years selling sex in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, she was just focused on surviving.

“There was a lot of times that I was beaten up, raped, robbed on the streets,” McMichael said. “All the times that these things have happened to me, I have never called the police and reported anything like that. I would walk away, beaten, raped and robbed and go back out there and I would not call the police. I felt like, ‘they're not going to make anything better.’ ”

McMichael said she would never consider calling the police, because the cops in Englewood harassed and mistreated her. And she said they’d made it clear they were not interested in arresting anyone besides women like her, selling sex.

“I have been stopped by the police in a car with a trick and they pull me out of the car, arrest me, and they let him go,” McMichael said. “I never met a cop that treated me well.”

According to a new report, McMichael’s experience is typical for people selling sex on the streets of Chicago. The 18-month study finds that Chicago police are focusing enforcement efforts almost exclusively on people selling sex, rather than sex buyers or traffickers.

The report released Monday by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation found that even as prostitution-related arrests and tickets have declined in Chicago, the share of those arrests and tickets against sex sellers has gone up. The study also details claims of sexual abuse and harassment by police officers and a system-wide failure to identify and help victims of sex trafficking.

“Rather than focusing on folks who are perpetuating the cycle and perpetuating the system, namely buyers and folks who are pimping or trafficking, they're picking up women who are sellers … folks who are probably the most marginalized and the most vulnerable,” Madeleine Behr, the study’s main author, said. “There's a reason that a lot of the folks that we talk to don't trust police officers and it's because they've been harmed by them.”

The advocacy group is calling on interim Chicago Police Superintendent Charlie Beck and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to make major changes to how prostitution is policed, and how police officers interact with people selling sex.

The report is based on public data, courtroom observation and interviews with attorneys, prosecutors and people like McMichael, who have been ticketed or arrested for selling sex.

According to the report, in 2017 Chicago police made only three arrests for pimping, compared to 667 arrests for selling sex. That year, the latest available in the alliance’s data analysis, arrests for selling made up 91% of all prostitution-related arrests. Compare that to five years earlier, when 74% of arrests were for selling.

McMichael said to pursue cases against pimps or traffickers, police would need help from women working on the streets, and that would require trust that is not there.

“I had cops come to me and ask me for all kinds of information on people that I was around, people I knew in the neighborhood because I was from that neighborhood,” McMichael said. “And I wouldn't trust them with anything in my life … because the police are just as bad as those people out there on the streets.”

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment. They did not answer questions about why they’re arresting women selling sex rather than the buyers or traffickers.

McMichael has been off the street and clean for two years now. She works at the Haymarket Center, helping mothers who struggle with addiction and she talks with a lot of women who have sold sex in Chicago.

“I am evidence that people can change,” McMichael said. “People are out here just trying to make it, and putting them in jail is not going to help them. Putting them in jail is not going to save them. It's not going to make them stop.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.

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