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Pressuring or requiring cab drivers and hotel workers to report suspected prostitution will backfire

Date: July 30, 2013

In the previous post, I wrote about how penalizing cab drivers, hotel workers, and others for building relationship with people in the sex trade (instead of immediately reporting it to the police, as the law enforcement requests) isolates people in the sex trade (youth or adult, trafficked or not) and make them more vulnerable. But some people continue to insist that the right thing to do is to call the police, so here is further explanation.

Public policies often have unintended consequences. That is, when the government takes measures to encourage certain actions and discourage others, it does not necessarily lead to the desired result, and might even cause unanticipated harms. So the question we should ask is: what will happen if the government requires or pressures cab drivers, hotel workers, and other businesses to report suspected sex trafficking cases, including any suspected minor engaging in prostitution?

Cab drivers, hotel workers, and others witnessing potential sex trafficking cases have several options to choose from. They can 1) call the police, 2) pretend that they are not seeing anything, 3) refuse services to them, or 4) approach the potential victim and build relationship so that they can offer resources if they need and want them (including calling the police if that is what they want).

Businesses might call the police in the very rare cases when they are 100% certain that the person is being trafficked, or the victim is clearly underage (someone who appears like a pre-pubescent, for example). But when it is uncertain, which things usually are, businesses are reluctant to call the police on their customers.

When the cost of acting on a suspicion that might be wrong (such as calling the police under false impression) is high, businesses recognize that it is in their best interest to remain (or feign) uninformed about the situation (option 2), or simply distancing themselves from it (option 3), rather than risking angering innocent customers (option 1), or learning too much about the situation by becoming too involved with people who might be in the sex trade (option 4), making them complicit in the crime in the eyes of the law enforcement.

As a result, policies that are intended to promote option 1 (calling the police) actually lead businesses to choose options 2 and 3, and foreclose further the possibilities for more innovative solutions that meet people in the sex trade, build rapport with them, and assist them in ways they desire.

Operation Cross Country VII Roundup and Comments

Date: July 30, 2013

Across country, yet another round of FBI’s Operation Cross Country sweep took place over three days last week, which is (supposedly) aimed at “rescuing” young people who are trafficked into prostitution and arrest those responsible for trafficking them. This is the seventh and the largest Operation Cross Country sweep to date, with 76 cities participating.

According to FBI, law enforcement agencies have “recovered” 105 youth and arrested 159 “pimps.” It is important to remember that, because of the broad definitions of “sex trafficking” and “promoting prostitution” (which is often considered “pimping”), these youth may or may not be under control of or exploited by a third party, and these “pimps” may or may not be controlling or exploiting the youth.

I have written previously about how these “rescue” operations uncover rather small number of minors who are in the sex trade (between one and two youth per city on average), while putting a large number of adult women in jail (see this and this). The pattern seems to hold true this time around: law enforcement agencies “rescued” (as in, they handcuffed and took away) 105 young people aged 13-17 in 76 cities in three days, which is about 1.38 youth per city.

Here is an updated chart summarizing the impact of Operation Cross Country I thru VII.

Spotty Data from FBI’s Operation Cross Country sweeps
Source: FBI press releases; last updated in July 2013

  Date Cities “Rescues” “Pimps” Other Arrest
1 06/25/2008 16 21 unk 389
2 10/27/2008 29 49 73 642 (518 adult sw)
3 02/23/2009 29 48 unk 571
4 10/26/2009 36 52 60 700
5 11/08/2010 40 69 99 885
6 06/25/2012 57 79 104 unk
7 07/29/2013 76 105 159 unk

As with the last time, I am also compiling information that are not on FBI’s website, but made public through local media (who probably get information from FBI).

City-by-City Roundup of Media Reports on Operation Cross Country VII
Source: FBI press release unless otherwise specified; last updated in July 2012

Division “Rescue” “Pimp” Adult SWs Notes Source(s)
Atlanta 2 17? 9 FBI Atlanta reports 10 arrests for “pimps” and 9 adult prostitution arrests; FBI in DC reports 17 “pimps.” WJBF and WRDW report 9 arrests for prostitution and 2 for sexual exploitation in Augusta area: does this mean all adult prostitution arrests in Georgia took place in Augusta? FBI Atlanta; WJBF ABC/Augusta; WTVM Columbus; WRDW Augusta
Baltimore 0 3 unk    
Birmingham 3 2 unk   Alabama Media Group; CBS Birmingham; WBRC FOX/Birmingham
Boston 3 0 unk Media report that all three youth were found in Maine, which is part of FBI Boston Division. Maine Sun Journal; WLBZ NBC/Bangor
Charlotte 1 3 unk    
Chicago 2 1 96   Daily Herald (Chicago)
Cincinnati 0 2 unk
Cleveland 1 1 23?   Toledo Blade
Columbia 1 1 unk WLTX reports 2 were arrested for promoting prostitution, not 1. The State (Columbia); WLTX Columbia
Dallas 1 1 unk   Dallas Morning News
Denver 9 6 51 KWGN reports 11 “pimps” were identified, and 25 “johns” arrested. KWGN Denver; Denver Post
Detroit 10 18 41 Detroit Free Press has details on 8 of the 10 “rescues”: they involve seven 17-year olds and one 16-year old. FBI Detroit; WWJ/CBS Detroit; Detroit Free Press; Advisor & Source
El Paso 0 2 16? AP reports 19 arrests in El Paso including three pimps; FBI reports only two pimp arrests. Las Cruces Sun-News
Houston 3 0 unk   Associated Press
Jackson 1 10 24? Jackson Free Press reports 24 people other than the minor and the “pimps” have been arrested on “related” charges, most likely adult prostitution. WJTV Jackson; WDAM Jackson; WJTV CBS/Jackson; WJTV CBS/Jackson; Jackson Free Press
Jacksonville 0 1 unk   Florida Times-Union
Kansas City 1 1 unk   KSHB NBC/Kansas City
Knoxville 0 7 11 Media report 8 “pimps” were arrested, not 7. Knoxville News Sentinel
Las Vegas 2 1 53+ Multiple news media report 2 “pimps” were arrested together with 1 youth “recovery,” even though FBI says 2 victims and 1 pimp. I tend to believe media reports because of the detail it provides (e.g. names of each “pimps” and specific charges against them). Adult women were also met with faith-based anti-trafficking “advocate.” 12 adult women arrested in Reno, 41 in Las Vegas. KOLO Las Vegas; Celebrity Examiner (Sacramento); Las Vegas Sun; KVVU FOX/Las Vegas
Los Angeles 2 3 unk   Los Angeles Times
Louisville 0 3 unk   WHAS Louisville
Memphis 3 2 unk   Commercial Appeal (Memphis)
Miami 0 4 35   Miami Herald; Hartford Courant
Milwaukee 10 0 100   FBI Milwaukee; FOX 6 Milwaukee; Capital Newspapers; CBS Milwaukee
Minneapolis 1 4 unk   WCCO CBS/Minneapolis
Newark 0 5 65+? News-Record quotes U.S. Senator saying that at least 70 arrests took place in New Jersey; The Current reports the same. Detail unknown. News-Record; The Current (Galloway)
New Haven 5 1 4+ 4 adult women arrested in Norwich alone. The Day (New London); Connecticut Post; Norwich Bulletin
New Orleans 6 6 64 KPLC has the breakdown of all arrests. Media report that there were 76 “arrests,” which would mean that “rescued children” were also arrested instead of being treated as victims. Of minors, 2 were from Baton Rouge and 4 from New Orleans. Advocate (Baton Rouge); WWLTV New Orleans; KPLC NBC/New Orleans; KATC Lafayette
New York City 0 0 7+ No “rescues” or “pimp” arrests in New York, but Saratogian and Saratoga Wire report seven adult women were arrested in Saratoga Springs in the course of the sweep. Saratogian; Saratoga Wire
Oklahoma City 3 13 36 The Oklahoman has full listing of all 60arrests connected to OCC7: 10 “pimps,” 36 adult women selling sex, 11 buyers, and 3 minors (age 16, 17, and 17). I assume that FBI is counting three buyers who were caught with the three minors as traffickers (as some law enforcement agencies do) to arrive at the total of 13 “pimps.” KOTV Tulsa; Muskogee Phoenix; Associated Press; The Oklahoman; The Oklahoman
Omaha 0 1 32+ Lincoln Journal Star reports that 5 adult women were arrested in Lincoln. The sole “pimp” is a boyfriend of one of the adult women arrested in the sweep. KOLN reports that there were 33 arrests total in Nebraska, 7 in Lincoln alone. Des Moines Register reports that 33 were “customers,” but this is clearly untrue. Lincoln Journal Star; Des Moines Register
Philadelphia 2 0 unk
Phoenix 2 0 30? KTVK reports “30 people were arrested including several pimps.” However FBI does not report any arrest of “pimps.” KTVK Phoenix
Pittsburgh 0 2 unk    
Portland 3 4 13   FBI Portland; The Columbian (Vancouver, WA); KREM Spokane; The Oregonian
Sacramento 2 2 unk   Fresno Bee
St. Louis 2 0 unk FBI says 2 youth recovered, but KPLR says 3 (age 16, 17, and 17). KPLR also says a pimp was “located.” KPLR St. Louis
Salt Lake City 0 0 unk    
San Antonio 1 4 unk   San Antonio Express-News
San Diego 5 6 50 Union-Tribune reports that three of the teens were returned to home, while other two were sent to detention. NBC reports 6 “rescues,” not 5. NBC San Diego; San Diego Union-Tribune
San Francisco 12 17 65   San Jose Mercury News; KGO ABC/San Francisco; San Francisco Chronicle; Vacaville Reporter
Seattle 3 3 55? FBI Seattle reports 9 arrests for abuse of minor; DC office says 3. 55 adult women were “identified and interviewed”–it is unclear if they are arrested. Seattle Times; The Columbian; King 5 Seattle
Springfield 0 2 unk    
Tampa 3 0 64 Tampa Bay Times reports 8 pimps have been “identified” but have not been arrested. News-Press reports 18 pimps have been identified. News-Press has the breakdown of arrests by county/area, adding up to 64 adults arrested for prostitution. WTSP CBS/Tampa; Tampa Bay Times; News-Press (Fort Myers)
Washington, D.C. 0 0 unk    

I want to make some comments, perhaps repeating myself from before.

First, when you hear that the law enforcement “rescued” or “liberated” young people, think about this photo from FOX News:

FOX News Photo

I’m not sure if this is an actual photo from Operation Cross Country sweep, or a stock photo FOX decided to pull out from somewhere, but this is exactly what “rescue” actually looks like. In fact, if you read closely to news reports, young people are arrested as part of their “rescue.” (Also, FOX News reports that the youngest victim was 9 year old, but that case is not from this raid. It is the youngest victim FBI has ever “rescued” years ago. According to FBI, the youngest victim uncovered during OCC7 was 13 year old, and most were 16-17 year olds.)

I am not suggesting that “rescues” are never necessary. Sometimes, like when someone is forcibly held against his or her will, we have no option but to call the police. But that is not a common experience of young people (as well as adults) in the sex trade: like many victims of domestic violence, even those who are experiencing abuse and exploitation do not leave their abusive environment because that is the best they can survive, given the social and economic circumstances, not because they are held hostage and unable to leave.

Domestic violence advocates know that “rescuing” abuse victims from their homes and forcing them into shelters involuntarily is generally not a solution. They believe, instead, in building resources and voluntary support services so that victims can receive long-term, ongoing assistance in dealing with the situation and leaving the abusive environment if and when they decide to do so. The same principle applies when we are working to support victims of abuse and exploitation in the sex trade.

I wrote previously about an innovative project in the anti-domestic violence movement in which hairstylists are trained about basics of domestic violence and survivor support. Hair salons are ideal place to provide support and information because it is a female-oriented space where many women spend a lot of time talking about their lives–much lower threshold than calling a crisis line. When hairstylists are trained to be good listeners and informed community advocate, they can build a relationship with women struggling with their relationships and offer support and referrals when they want it.

Anti-trafficking advocates too often neglect decades of development within the anti-domestic violence movement that can and should inform our approach to assisting youth and adults in the sex trade. Too often, anti-trafficking policies penalize people like cab drivers and hotel staff as well as friends and family members for developing any relationship with people involved in the sex trade (especially when there are pimps involved) unless they immediately call the police or other “rescuers,” labeling them “pimps” or promoters/facilitators of prostitution/trafficking. By preventing people in the sex trade from developing relationship, these policies isolate them and make them more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

Another things I want to point out is the incoherence of the anti-trafficking hyperbole in the face of this three-day, nationwide prostitution sweep. Anti-trafficking organizations routinely claim (falsely) that there are hundreds of trafficked “children” in any given city, who are forced to have sex 10-15 times a day, every day: if that is the case, why do they only find 105 minors in a three-day police sweep mobilizing law enforcement agencies in 76 cities? And if the “average age” someone is first trafficked into prostitution is 13, as anti-trafficking groups routinely claim (falsely), why is the youngest person they could find in the three-day nationwide sweep 13? It does not make sense.

Finally, I’d like to say kudos to Los Angeles Times for the best (by comparison, that is) mainstream coverage of OCC7, in which the paper focused on the failure of the foster system that creates vulnerabilities for young people. I would add, though, that it is not just foster system that is broken; it is our welfare system, our education system, our immigration system and criminal justice system (because many young people end up in foster care after parents are deported or imprisoned), and of course everything else.

As Los Angeles Times points out, any young people are on the street after running away from the child welfare system. “Rescues” only put them back into the system that have failed them already, and chances are they will run away again. And of course when many young women are arrested for prostitution in these raids, more of their children will go into the child welfare system. We need to stop spending millions of dollars in these useless law enforcement campaigns and use that money to fix social institutions that fail youth in the first place.

Speaking of media coverage: here’s the most bizarre photo accompanying the article about OCC7:

Bizarre News Photo

[Update] Maggie McNeill confirms that the photo in the FOX News article is a stock photo.