Police consider sex workers subhuman
Criminalizing sex work makes it violent
Researching how criminalization makes sex work more dangerous I came across the story of serial rapist and killer Khalil Wheeler-Weaver.
Say what you will about him, no one can fault Khalil Wheeler-Weaver for poorly understanding the police.
Between August and December 2016, Wheeler-Weaver targeted Black sex workers in New Jersey because he knew police don’t consider sex workers humans and won’t investigate their murders.
Perhaps Wheeler-Weaver had heard that the Los Angeles Police Department described a dozen serial murders Lonnie Franklin committed between 1985 and 2010 as “N.H.I.,” an unofficial acronym that stands for “no human involved” because the victims were Black sex workers. Many cops are Lonnie Franklin fans and openly admire him for “cleaning up the streets.”
Or perhaps Khalil Wheeler-Weaver knew this through his family. His stepfather is a police detective in East Orange. His uncle is a police officer in Newark. Wheeler-Weaver actually likely hoped to become a police officer himself. While Wheeler-Weaver was murdering Black sex workers he was working as a grocery store security guard and searching for a practice test for the police entrance exam.
Whatever led Wheeler-Weaver to believe he could get away with murdering Black sex workers, for three of them, he was right.
On August 30, 2016, Robin West went dark. One week later, her family reported her missing. Sept. 1, her body was found, burned beyond recognition. On Sept. 13, 2016, Union Township police learned the body was Robin West’s. Robin had languished in the morgue for almost two weeks before dental records confirmed her identity. Wheeler-Weaver took police to the abandoned building where he said he’d dropped West off, less than two blocks from where her body was found. Yet for some reason police never mirandized him or investigated further.
Now we have two dead sex workers directly connected to Wheeler-Weaver whose bodies were found less than two miles away from each other — and from Wheeler-Weaver’s home.
Yet on Nov. 15, 2016, Wheeler-Weaver was still a free man under no investigation.
He picked up Tiffany Taylor, hit her in the back of the head, handcuffed her, covered her mouth with duct tape, and raped her in his back seat. As Wheeler-Weaver strangled Taylor she begged for her life. She told Wheeler-Weaver she was pregnant. “I know,” he said. Taylor said that’s when she knew he was going to kill her.
But Taylor convinced Wheeler-Weaver to take her back to the motel, where she had left her cellphone, then locked him out of the room while she dialed 911.
When Elizabeth police officers arrived at the motel, Taylor told them that Wheeler-Weaver had raped her and tried to kill her. She told them his name. She showed them her phone where they could see proof of the meeting. But instead of investigating, Elizabeth police officers threatened to arrest Taylor for prostitution. They wouldn’t even help her remove the handcuffs still dangling from Taylor’s right wrist.
Officers from the Elizabeth Police Department who responded to the call testified that they didn’t believe Taylor because she’d waited an hour to call.
Sarah Butler would be alive right now if police had done even the bare minimum at any time between Sept 1 and Nov. 19, 2016.
Instead, during this time Wheeler-Weaver searched terms like “How to make homemade poisons to kill humans” and “What chemical could you put on a rag and hold to someone’s face to make them go to sleep immediately.”
At 3:52 p.m. on Nov. 19, 2016, Wheeler-Weaver Googled date-rape drugs. One hour and 53 minutes later, he offered Sarah Butler $500 for sex. “Wow,” Butler said. “You’re not a serial killer, right?”
After Butler’s disappearance, Wheeler-Weaver spoke to detectives twice, admitting he’d arranged online to meet with Butler. During one of these talks detectives saw a scratch scabbing over on one of Wheeler-Weaver’s triceps. Yet police failed to mirandize Wheeler-Weaver either time they talked.
On Dec. 1, 2016, investigators discovered Butler's body buried beneath leaves and debris at the Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange.
The only reason Wheeler-Weaver was ever arrested and mirandized was because Butler’s parents, sister and friends did all the investigating themselves.
Butler’s family and friends logged into her social media accounts to find out who she’d been talking to during her final days. That’s how they found her messages with Wheeler-Weaver. The team created a fake profile and lured Wheeler-Weaver into an in-person meetup where police were waiting for him. Police finally took Wheeler-Weaver into custody on Dec. 6, 2016.
Exchanging sex for money is a non-violent, victimless crime. Criminalizing sex work makes it violent. Criminalization in the US generally is violent and dehumanizing. Most Americans consider people who are even accused of crimes to be subhuman. How else can shows like COPS depict police officers wantonly abusing people who are merely suspected of crimes with zero recourse or Due Process?
Police officers feel justified raping sex workers and ignoring crimes against them because they consider them subhuman. “I have been raped by police officers in every city except for Indianapolis,” sex worker Tamika Spellman said. “It’s not consent for me to have to give you a sexual favor so that I don’t go to jail.” In 2018, police officers in 35 states could get out of a rape charge by claiming a suspect in their custody consented to sex. Criminalization justifies and codifies this attitude.
“I’ve heard far too many stories of violence, including stabbings, beatings, shootings, rapes, and murder,” At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Grosso said. “All because the perpetrators think they can act with impunity against those in the sex trade. Worse, we hear of police refusing to help, blaming those in the sex trade for the violence they’ve suffered.”
After New Zealand decriminalized sex work police harassed sex workers less often and sex workers started reporting crimes like rape and robbery.
This isn’t complicated. Criminalizing the sex trade does not decrease the frequency of sex for money any more than the Drug War decreased the frequency of people getting high.
Criminalizing non-violent behavior only leads to more violence. People whose livelihoods are criminalized experience more violence both by police and by perpetrators who don’t have to fear workers will report or police will investigate. Decriminalization reduces violence as people stop having to fear punishment for working and are able to report their crimes to police and demand investigation from police.
Khalil Wheeler-Weaver understood how cops think. It’s time we did too.