The NYPD should not be arresting people for sex work, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“To the question of whether sex workers should be arrested, my broad answer is no,” he said when asked about the 2017 arrest of Layleen Polanco, the transgender woman who later died two years later from a seizure in solitary confinment at Rikers Island.

An undercover police officer said in a criminal complaint that Polanco agreed to engage in prostitution and alleged that he found a drug pipe in her pants pocket. 

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office referred the case to a special court for people it deems human trafficking victims. But charges were not dismissed because Polanco missed court appearances. 

Hundreds of people packed into Foley Square on June 10, 2019 to hold a vigil for Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The unresolved case ultimately kept her locked up on Rikers Island from April 2019 until her death there that June in a solitary cell while held on $500 bail. She was 27.

Asked Wednesday whether the Police Department would cease such arrests, de Blasio said the NYPD should focus on “the people who are organizing and profiting from that sex work.”

“That change has already been happening,” the mayor said. “We need to deepen that change and we’ll have more to say on that.”

‘We Work for Ourselves’

But his framing of the issue drew criticism from sex worker organizers and advocates. 

Sex workers in the city largely operate independently, said T.S. Candii, a sex worker and director of Black Trans Nation. She said concerns about hierarchies like “pimps” are generally outdated and encouraged the mayor to sit down with sex workers to hear about their current challenges.

“It’s just like doing hair in the kitchen,” she said. “We go out there, we work for ourselves, because we’re surviving or sometimes we have to work for our families, we’ve got children that we’ve got to raise, we’ve got mouths to feed. Or education.”

‘Sex work constantly gets confused with sex trafficking.’

She worried that the mayor’s direction could endanger advocates like her, who support and offer aid to other sex workers. 

“I’m an organizer, and I organize around sex work, and I organize sex workers,” she said. “So right now, I feel as if I’m about to get arrested at any moment.”

“Sex work constantly gets confused with sex trafficking,” she added.

Decriminalization Bill in Works

Polanco’s sister Melania Brown told THE CITY that sex work was one of few open doors for her sister — but that she freely chose it and had no “pimp.”

“Layleen was about her coins,” Brown said. “So she did what she had to do to get that independence.”

Audacia Ray, director of community organizing and public advocacy at the Anti-Violence Project, which has worked closely with Polanco’s family since her death, said sex workers, their clients and people who colloborate with or support sex workers should not have to fear arrest.

“Criminalization allows for police to profile and arrest sex workers, disproportionately targeting Black and brown trans women, under the guise of helping them,” she said.

Layleen Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, takes part in a Brooklyn march for Black trans lives, June 14, 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Melania Brown

A bill to decriminalize sex work was introduced in Albany last year. Polanco’s family has called for the Legislature to pass the measure.

The mayor’s statement came days after THE CITY revealed a $5.9 million deal to end the lawsuit filed by Polanco’s family. It marked the largest settlement for a jail death in New York City history, a Law Department spokesman confirmed.

Polanco died nine days into a 20-sentence stay in solitary confinement in the women’s jail on Rikers Island, THE CITY first reported last year. 

She had epilepsy and schizophrenia, according to her family, and was placed in isolation despite restrictions on inmates with serious medical and psychological conditions. 

Polanco’s story drew local and national calls for an end to solitary confinement — and ultimately convinced de Blasio to announce that the city will end the practice, which critics say amounts to torture. 

“We have to right the wrong,” he said at a June news conference.