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Bay Area agencies improvise tactics to battle trafficking
With little guidance from state leaders, local police, nonprofits fight for scarce funding
Across California, local agencies have been left to scramble for limited resources and improvise strategies to fight human trafficking, a problem whose scope has yet to be defined with reliable numbers.
A high-profile state task force studying California’s human trafficking problem made 46 recommendations in October 2007 to reform criminal law, improve training, coordinate among agencies and provide better victim services. But the group did not set up mechanisms to monitor progress.
The task force disbanded shortly after releasing its report. Attorney General Kamala Harris, who represented San Francisco when she was district attorney, has begun picking up the pieces this year. In February she reconvened the panel in Sacramento to assess the remaining challenges. An updated report is due this spring.
Without clear guidance from the state, nine regional task forces have sprung up in California to devise their own solutions. Their efforts have been supported mostly by federal grants. But as the funding rules become more stringent, the groups at times have been pitted against each other for resources.
“We’re competing for a shrinking pool of money,” said Lt. Jason Fox, leader of the San Francisco police’s human trafficking unit. “We’re competing with jurisdictions that are absolutely broke.”
Bay Area agencies say they are doing the best they can. Nonprofit organizations say they cannot provide services to all the victims who come forward. Without adequate training and coordination, police departments often default to what they are trained to do — routine public safety, not investigations of international organized crime.
As recently as last June the San Francisco Police Department got permission to use a portion of a human trafficking grant to arrest 41 prostitutes in the Polk Gulch neighborhood in response to residents’ complaints.
Then in October, the department lost out on a critical half-million-dollar grant to add staff for long-term investigations and victim support, increase training, direct more resources to labor trafficking and create an office at San Francisco International Airport, where local police would work with federal investigators to uncover international human trafficking schemes.
The grant went instead to the San Jose Police Department, which outlined a detailed plan, cited its record of 60 investigations — some in collaboration with federal law enforcement — and extensive outreach and training programs.
San Francisco’s application, while ambitious, cited few investigative accomplishments in recent years, federal grant reviewers wrote. It was vague on goals, and revealed that the police department placed human trafficking investigations in its prostitution-focused vice crimes unit, an indication that it had neglected labor trafficking.
San Francisco’s loss of the grant highlights a problem across California, which experts say has seen high numbers of trafficking cases compared with most other states. But reliable numbers are hard to come by. Even some high-level collaborative anti-trafficking operations rely on exaggerated, unscientific estimates of the scale of the problem, say researchers in government, advocacy organizations and academe.
In a 2008 study of the 13 worst afflicted regions of the country, California accounted for 26 percent of federal prosecutions for human trafficking. Local law enforcement and victim service providers identify the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego as hubs. Traffickers take advantage of these cities’ immigrant and ethnic enclaves, the southern border with Mexico and convenient travel connections to the Pacific Rim and Latin America.
The sparse statistics notwithstanding, the U.S. State Department in 2009 sketched out a possible trend, tied to the current recession: Worsening economic conditions abroad have contributed to an increase in worldwide slavery and debt bondage. People who come to the U.S. illegally in search of work are more likely to become victims of traffickers than in the past.
“They’re being brought in from countries where there is no economic future for them,” said Robert Uy, a former staff attorney for Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, a victim-services agency in San Francisco.
"In places like the Philippines, he said, the average wage is $150 a month. “And guess what, there’s huge amounts of unemployment, so most people make even less than that. They make like $30 a month.”
Immigration policy has worsened the situation, he added: “We’ve made it so damn difficult to get into the country now that people have to pay people to bring them in, or go to the shady recruiters who will promise them status.”
Nationwide the anti-trafficking movement is picking up steam. The federal government has funded 45 regional task forces across the country since 2004. Most of the focus is on sex trafficking, particularly the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. The Department of Justice reported that as of October 2009, these regional task forces, along with activist groups and nonprofits “rescued over 891 children from commercial sexual exploitation and produced over 500 convictions in state and federal court, according to FBI statistics.”
In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance provided $3.75 million in federal stimulus grants administered by the California Emergency Management Agency to nine regional task forces in the state, three of them in the Bay Area: San Francisco, San Jose and Alameda County.
The grant language defined goals broadly, such as “Decrease the demand for human trafficking” and “Increase the number of individuals arrested for human trafficking.” They did not dictate approaches or set deadlines for meeting the goals, so the task forces were able to report routine policing operations as progress against human trafficking.
The San Francisco vice crimes unit reported the arrests of “johns” as human trafficking offenders. The unit also got permission to repurpose some of the grant money for prostitution street sweeps last summer in the Polk Gulch area, arresting dozens of prostitutes in response complaints. While neither action violated the guidelines, it departed from the original intent of the grant: to pursue long-term investigations.
After a review last year of task forces nationwide, the Bureau of Justice Assistance laid out stringent new standards for grantees to make local agencies more effective and accountable. Trafficking investigations could no longer be run out of vice squads, whose role traditionally has been investigating prostitution. Nor could investigators over-emphasize sex; the less recognizable problem of labor trafficking in all its forms must also be tackled.
In retrospect, San Francisco’s failure to get the new half-million dollar grant could have been foreseen: Its grant application followed years of work in which successes focused largely on raids at brothels, massage parlors and other sex-related businesses.
The highest-profile success of the San Francisco police to date was Operation Gilded Cage. After a nine-month investigation local officers and FBI agents busted a network of massage parlors where more than 100 women, many of them Korean immigrants, had been forced into prostitution. The stings, which targeted 10 suspected brothels in San Francisco, were the inspiration for a 2005 series in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Diary of a Sex Slave.”
Since then, however, the department has been slow to build investigative capacity or training. Currently each officer receives just a half-hour of training every two years. Last fall Police Chief Greg Suhr reformed the human trafficking team, relocating two dedicated investigators to a newly reorganized special victims unit.
Until recently, there have been few labor trafficking investigations. No labor-related cases have ever been referred to Assistant District Attorney Victor Hwang, who was specifically assigned that duty by the police department in September 2009.
However, in early 2012 the police said they uncovered a major international labor trafficking case involving multiple victims throughout the Bay Area. They said it involved trafficking across state and international borders. Out of concern of jeopardizing active investigations and prosecutions, the police said they could not yet reveal certain details from the case.
The scale of the arrests and prosecutions were too big for San Francisco police to handle. The case was turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Federal agents have made arrests in early February, said Fox of the San Francisco police. “We gave it to the feds because they have resources we don’t have,” Fox said.
SEX VS. LABOR
Federal law enforcement agencies such as Homeland Security Investigations, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are more likely take on labor trafficking cases because of the resources, time, experience and training needed to successfully investigate and prosecute them.
Last year the Department of Justice reported that in more than 2,500 suspected cases of human trafficking, 56 percent of labor-related investigations included a federal agency — versus 23 percent for sex trafficking. Federal agencies were four times more likely to take the lead in labor trafficking cases.
In a high-profile labor trafficking case last June, an employee of the Italian Consulate in San Francisco, Giuseppe Penzato, and his wife, Kesia Penzato, were arrested, accused of keeping a Brazilian woman in domestic servitude. Accounts of the case made headlines. The victim was rescued and her traffickers charged.
What was not revealed at the time was that the case took more than a year of work by Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and local nonprofit victim service providers.
The case was brought to federal officials in April 2010 by Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, which had been helping the victim since she fled the couple’s home in late 2009.
Lori K. Haley, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security Investigations, said the case was brought to another government agency less than nine months earlier, but would not specify which agency that was.
Special Agent Jennifer Alderete, the initial investigator on the case, who interviewed the victim several times, said the critical element was keeping the woman engaged and cooperating.
The victim’s nonprofit advocates and those at another agency, Standing Against Global Exploitation, found the woman shelter and worked with immigration authorities to allow her to remain in the country.
Alderete said providing victims with social, medical, legal and immigration services from the moment of rescue helps build successful prosecutions.
Forty-four states have felony human trafficking laws. Prison time ranges from less than 10 years to life in prison. California Assembly Bill 22 of 2005 provides a maximum eight years in prison for trafficking a minor. For the same crime, federal law (authorization for which expired last September) prescribed a sentence of 15 years to life.
The shorter maximum sentence has led many prosecutors in California to use other charges — kidnapping, domestic violence, child sexual assault and extortion — to increase sentences to as much as life in prison.
Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Sharmin Bock, who has more than 20 years of experience prosecuting sex offenders, criticized the current law.
“All you can get is the max, eight years,” she said. “So if you’re the trafficker, what are you going to do? You’re going to go to trial. But if you charge extortion, what’s the penalty? Life. Do you think he is going to roll the dice?”
But providing tools for prosecutors is not the only concern of the Legislature.
Overcrowding in prisons has hampered the state’s anti-trafficking agenda. Since a federal court ordered the state to reduce prison populations in 2010, lawmakers have been allergic to passing any laws that put offenders in jail longer.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said she tried to get the trafficking law amended in 2011 to broaden the definition of human trafficking. “But right now, any bill with punishment attached doesn’t get out of committee,” she said. “No one wants to add more people to the prison rolls.”
The 2005 human trafficking law, authored by then-Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, included criminal provisions. Lieber said senators opposed it because it would add more felonies to the state’s complicated code without considering the impact on public safety and correctional resources. They preferred comprehensive sentencing overhaul to a piecemeal approach.
Then-Assemblyman (and now state Senator) Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, supported the bill, but warned that it would not pass with felony provisions.
“We were thinking it would be great to get twice what we asked for — 16 years,” Lieber said. “But we knew that there was no way that was going to fly.”
Lieber said she encountered opposition from several Republicans, including Tom McClintock — then a state senator, now a member of Congress — and former assemblymen Ray Hanes and Tim Leslie.
Some senators objected to providing legal protections to victims who entered the country illegally. “We had a lot of people making comments in committee of ‘Well, if people game the system by trying to get here through these traffickers, then they deserve what they get,’” Lieber said.
Although criminal penalties in the state’s anti-trafficking law have not increased, other laws have been created or amended that provide more support and protection for victims:
•Police now must exercise “due diligence,” and assess victims of domestic violence or rape for indications of human trafficking.
•It is now a misdemeanor to reveal the location of shelters for victims of domestic violence or human trafficking.
•The addresses of sex abuse victims cannot be revealed by law enforcement.
•The law no longer requires that coercion be proved in cases involving minors.
•Debt-bondage contracts are now illegal.
•Domestic workers now receive labor law protections.
•Foreign victims of trafficking can receive social services while qualifying for a federal human trafficking T visa.
•Criminal fines and any profits from human trafficking go to the state Victim-Witness Assistance Fund.
It remains difficult to measure the scope of human trafficking because reliable large-scale studies are lacking. The 2007 state task force recommendations included the creation of a system for collecting data from state and federal law enforcement and prosecutors.
But when asked for human trafficking prosecution statistics, Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Rebecca MacLaren said the agency does not track the data. Some data are maintained by the counties themselves, although the quality of the information varies widely.
Alameda County keeps a full accounting of cases in which human trafficking charges are filed, back to January 2006. Records provided to the San Francisco Public Press by the Alameda District Attorney’s Office for cases that included at least one human trafficking offense show 113 people charged under that law in the last six years. Of those, 39 were convicted of human trafficking and 28 on other charges. More than 20 defendants await a resolutions or verdicts. And the pace of cases is accelerating; more than half entered the court system since 2010.
During that time the work of the office’s trafficking task force led to the filing of a variety of criminal offenses in a total of 180 cases, which led to 140 convictions.
San Francisco’s data is minimal, though it is not clear whether this is due to poor record-keeping or the lack of arrests and prosecutions. The police began tracking basic human trafficking data in 2010 through its domestic violence unit. In response to a public records request, the department produced records of one prosecuted human trafficking case in 2010 and two in 2011, though it was only from one division. Other parts of the department might have records of additional cases but they could not be found.
Nationwide, experts disagree even on the order of magnitude of the human trafficking problem.
Last June The Village Voice, a weekly newspaper in New York, concluded that frequently quoted statistics are inflated and based on questionable methodologies. It singled out one of the most commonly cited statistics — that an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children are “at risk” for, or are, being sexually exploited each year in the U.S. They traced the statistic back to the work of two University of Pennsylvania professors. But statisticians who reviewed their methodology found significant flaws.
The newspaper turned to a federal report that concluded that of 45 surveyed regional task forces, only 18 kept paperwork accurate enough to provide meaningful numbers. Adjusting for the holes in the data, the paper concluded, documented cases of trafficked children would be only about 250 per year. Somewhere between that number and hundreds of thousands lies the truth.
The newest effort to reform California trafficking laws has also leaned on the questionable statistics.
A citizen drive to get an initiative on the November 2012 ballot, called the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, would among other tough penalties provide for sentences of up to life in prison for trafficking a minor, and fines as high as $1.5 million.
Daphne Phung, founder of California Against Slavery, the organization sponsoring the initiative, removed the “100,000 to 300,000” statement from the initiative’s website after the San Francisco Public Press pointed out the methodology questions.
Phung said the real challenge for the anti-trafficking movement is educating voters that it exists in the United States.
“I think it’s really a mental block for voters — that this is not an issue that can happen in this country,” Phung said.
State Senator Yee, an advocate and author of some human trafficking legislation, cites the 2007 state task force statistics on his own website, saying trafficking remains “a significant problem, particularly in San Francisco.” The statistics: Forty-seven percent of victims are used in prostitution, 33 percent in domestic servitude, 5 percent in sweatshops and 2 percent in agriculture.
But Yee and his staff clearly did not read the footnotes. On the last two pages of the 128-page report, the task force in 2007 disavowed the reliability of its own statistics. The task force got back only 10 percent of the more than 1,000 surveys it sent to organizations working on the issues.
“This is a very low response rate, a respectable rate being at least close to 50 percent,” the report said. “Thus, the results are not scientifically reliable. We have included the results in the report, however, because many of the results mirror what is already known about human trafficking.”
Late last year, the San Francisco Police Department reorganized the special victims unit, which included specialists in human trafficking. It came too late to help the department earn a $500,000 grant for that purpose, but the department will try again. The unit opened Oct. 20. Pictured at the ribbon-cutting at the Hall of Justice (left to right): Capt. Antonio Parra, commander of the Special Victims Unit, Police Chief Greg Suhr (at the podium), Lea Militello, commander of police MTA division, Mayor Ed Lee, Thomas Mazzucco, president of the police commission and Deputy Police Chief Kevin Cashman.
About the Author
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.”