Civil Rights Advocates Protest Focus of Super Bowl Spike in Police Activity | Phoenix New Times

Civil Rights Advocates Protest Focus of Super Bowl Spike in Police Activity

The focus by Phoenix and Glendale police on human trafficking and panhandling ahead of the Super Bowl has some civil rights activists concerned.
Advocates for the rights of sex workers protested outside the Footprint Center on February 6.
Advocates for the rights of sex workers protested outside the Footprint Center on February 6. Katya Schwenk
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Downtown Phoenix was bustling on Monday as jersey-clad football fans streamed into the Footprint Center for one of many pre-Super Bowl events.

Then, a bullhorn cut through the noise. "Stop the raids," a demonstrator cried.

The activists, who hailed from Arizona organizations that are focused on sex worker rights, were protesting the uptick in police activity related to the Super Bowl and the law enforcement-fueled idea that sex trafficking increases around the massive event.

The Super Bowl has brought money and crowds to metro Phoenix in advance of the big game on Sunday. It also has spurred an increase in surveillance and police activity across the Valley — worrying some civil rights advocates and sparking protests such as Monday's rally.

"We have general concerns with an uptick in policing around the Super Bowl," said Jared Keenan, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. Such law enforcement activity, he said, tended to "go much farther than what's needed to keep people safe."
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Advocates for the rights of sex workers, including Arlene Mahoney, protested outside the Footprint Center on February 6.
Katya Schwenk

Activists Protest Raids on Sex Workers

At the protest on Monday, activists drew a distinction between consensual sex work, in which sex is exchanged for money or something of value, and sex trafficking, which involves force or coercion. "Sex workers are often targeted under the guise of human trafficking," said Arlene Mahoney, the executive director of the Southwest Recovery Alliance, a harm reduction organization.

In the lead up to the Super Bowl, law enforcement — both here in Phoenix and elsewhere — often warns of an increased threat of human trafficking. "Any time you have a large event — it's not unique to the Super Bowl — you're going to have an influx of sex trafficking," Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell told Phoenix New Times on Wednesday. Phoenix police Chief Michael Sullivan told the Arizona Republic that the agency's human trafficking task force was working overtime.

The notion that the Super Bowl feeds an increase in human trafficking is a "harmful myth," Mahoney said.  Some studies on the issue, including a 2014 report by Arizona State University researchers ahead of the 2015 Super Bowl in Glendale, found no link between increased sex trafficking and the sporting event.

Rather, Mahoney said, the specter of human trafficking is used to arrest adults engaging in consensual sex work — generally charged as misdemeanor prostitution, not as trafficking — which many activists believe should be decriminalized. "Sex work is not trafficking," she added, noting that criminalizing all sex work can make witnesses to trafficking less likely to speak out.

The Phoenix Police Department has a long history of sex work stings. In 2014, the arrest of activist Monica Jones for an obscure, controversial misdemeanor city offense called "manifesting prostitution" brought scrutiny to the department's continual raids on sex workers. Many people arrested in the raids were forced into diversion programs with heavy religious overtones, one investigation found.

The laws disproportionately impact sex workers of color, Jones said at the rally on Monday. “Black and brown women are more likely to be arrested for prostitution,” she said. “Trans women are more likely to be arrested.”

Mitchell said there would be a "variety" of law enforcement responses to trafficking during the Super Bowl, including investigations and simply raising awareness.

"My concern as county attorney is going to be felony criminal conduct, and that's really going to involve the sex trafficking type of behavior. That's going to be my focus," she said.
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During a protest on February 6, activists said a police focus on human trafficking ahead of the Super Bowl often ensnares sex workers.
Katya Schwenk

Glendale Criticized for Panhandling Crackdown

In October 2022, the Glendale City Council passed two ordinances criminalizing panhandling. The Super Bowl was months away, but the big game was already top of mind for city officials.

“With the Super Bowl coming, we really want to showcase that we are a safe city, and that’s what these ordinances do," Vice Mayor Jamie Aldama told 12News after the ordinances passed.

The new code criminalizes soliciting donations by bus stops, banks, or business entrances, as well as panhandling along roadways or in medians. A first offense results in a warning, and subsequent citations can carry criminal penalties.

In early discussions about the ordinances, city officials claimed their priority was pedestrian safety, not assessing fines or sending people to jail. Yet it's unclear what enforcement of the ordinances has looked like over the past several months.

On January 27, the ACLU of Arizona demanded that the city stop enforcing the two ordinances. In a letter to the city, the organization called the ordinances "overbroad and facially unconstitutional" and noted that asking for money is protected speech — just like asking for signatures for a petition or street preaching.

"This type of ordinance isn't new," Keenan said. "They've been passed in numerous cities around the country, and every time they are passed, courts strike them down."

The timing of Glendale's ordinances was related to the Super Bowl, he added. "It's clearly an attempt to make fans and tourists feel more comfortable when they walk around Glendale. That's our assumption."

In the letter, the ACLU gave the city a deadline of February 3 to agree to "repeal and not enforce" both ordinances. But the city has not yet responded aside from acknowledging receipt of the letter, Keenan said.

In an email to Phoenix New Times, Glendale spokesperson Derek Diesner wrote that the letter "has not prompted any change that was not already in the process." For now, Diesner said, the ordinances are "currently being enforced by the Glendale Police Department."

On Tuesday, the Glendale City Council will consider adding updated definitions to the ordinances, Diesner said. However, the new language — which in part clarifies the meaning of panhandling in an "aggressive manner," which is currently criminalized under the ordinance — does not substantively change the code.

Keenan said it was too early to say whether the ACLU expected to sue over the ordinance. "I can't say yet whether we are definitely going to litigate," he said, but he noted that was "always a possibility."
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Activists in the rally outside the Footprint Center included Maxine Doogan (center), Arlene Mahoney (left), and Juliana Piccillo.
Katya Schwenk

Phoenix Spends $1.6 Million on Downtown Surveillance

Though it's being held in the West Valley, the Super Bowl this weekend will leave a lasting impact on downtown Phoenix — including on the surveillance capabilities of Phoenix police.

In December 2021, the city approved an expansive downtown surveillance camera project by the police department, using the Super Bowl as a key justification. "As the City of Phoenix prepares for the upcoming Super Bowl in February 2023, existing cameras continue to fail," the agency wrote in its initial request.

The first phase of the plan cost the city $600,000, and the second phase, which was approved in July 2022, added another $1 million. The plan more than quadrupled the number of cameras in downtown Phoenix, defined as south of the I-10 and north of Jackson Street, and between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue.

In 2021, there were 60 police-owned surveillance cameras in that area, of which only 25 were operational. The Super Bowl project will add 137 new street-level and rooftop cameras, according to the city's plans.

A Phoenix Police Department spokesperson did not reply to New Times' inquiries about the status of the camera project. Officials told ABC15 this week that the project was not yet fully completed.
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