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Special victims unit to take a new victim-centered approach to human rights violations
The little-noticed use of San Francisco’s human trafficking task force to arrest street prostitutes over the summer underscores a sharp nationwide debate on how local law enforcement can help rescue victims of economic and sexual slavery.
Until October, the city’s anti-trafficking team operated out of the San Francisco Police Department’s vice crimes unit. With the help of a federal-state grant, the team racked up more than 15 investigations of suspected traffickers. But in the spring it altered its tactics, making large-scale arrests of dozens of prostitutes in the Polk Gulch neighborhood, in response to complaints from neighbors.
While 60 percent of the prostitutes were “assessed” for evidence of human trafficking, according to arrest reports, the operations otherwise looked like typical street sweeps in problem areas leading to misdemeanor charges, said experts inside and out of the department. One victim was identified and referred to a social service agency, while several suspected victims did not come forward, and were booked.
The vice crimes unit’s tactics have vacillated in the last year as high turnover of anti-trafficking team leadership slowed investigative progress. Last April, less than a year into the grant, the department told the state it would prefer to use the money to perform “aggressive street enforcement of a more general nature.”
The original grant, federal funds awarded by the California Emergency Management Agency, was initially intended for undercover human trafficking investigations and permit inquiries into suspect businesses.
But in an email correspondence and phone conversations, the state grant administrator quickly approved the change. Then, in May and June, the police conducted a sweep of at least 41 prostitutes.
In October the department announced it was shifting the human trafficking work to a newly overhauled special victims unit. Police officials repeatedly said the new office, which is to include more than 50 investigators, at least three of whom will specialize in human trafficking, would put renewed focus in that area.
The reorganization came just before the department was to hear whether the San Francisco police and a local victim service provider, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, would each receive federal grants totaling $500,000 over two years from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and Office of Victims of Crime.
But the move did not come in time. The San Francisco Police Department was not awarded the grant. Instead it was awarded on Oct. 1 to the San Jose Police Department. The primary reason given for the denial was insufficient description of how the police would work with their nonprofit partner.
Although grant evaluators considered the department’s proposal comprehensive, one wrote that the human trafficking investigations were run out the vice crimes unit at the time that the application was filed.
Capt. Antonio Parra, commander of the Special Victims Unit (left), appeared in October with Police Chief Greg Suhr (at podium), Mayor Ed Lee (middle) and other officials at the opening of the reorganized unit's new location on the fifth floor of the San Francisco Hall of Justice. Photo by Jason Winshell/SF Public Press
Jason Winshell is photo editor of the Public Press. He also reports and does data analysis. The focus of his art is social documentary photography. In 2010, he was nominated for the SFMOMA SECA award. He has published a book of 45 color photographs about life in San Francisco, “Street.”
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