Long Beach police already knew the painful truth behind child exploitation


[aesop_image imgwidth=”500px” img=”https://www.signaltribunenewspaper.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Screen-Shot-2016-08-25-at-2.37.47-PM.png” credit=”File photo” align=”right” lightbox=”on” caption=”The Long Beach Police Department was one of the early participants in a pilot program in LA County that aims to treat— rather than arrest— juveniles involved with prostitution. On Aug. 24, lawmakers passed SB 1322, a California Senate bill that will essentially deal with these minors as victims of human trafficking, not criminals.” captionposition=”right”]

[aesop_character name=”CJ Dablo” caption=”Staff Writer” align=”center”]

There had already been a turning point a few years ago when the Long Beach Police Department was told that officers could arrest pimps for human-trafficking crimes. However, Sgt. Eric Hooker, who serves in the police’s vice field-investigations section, described in a phone interview another critical moment for his department. They needed to ask an important question: Why were prostitutes selling themselves on the street in the first place?

“And it sounds like such a basic premise,” Hooker said, “but before then, there was no need to talk to them about it, because all we were doing was arresting them.” He explained that prostitutes had not previously been considered victims of human-trafficking crimes. With the change in law, pimps were now more often being called “traffickers.”
The sergeant recalled one adult woman they interviewed. They decided to just talk to a prostitute and assure her that she wouldn’t be arrested, that the police just wanted to know her story and get her help.

“And before she even uttered a word,” Hooker said, “she started crying, which took us back because we weren’t prepared to hear the story she was about to tell us.” The woman described how her trafficker would beat her, choke her until she became unconscious and manipulate her with death threats if she were to leave him. Hooker said that the police applied the human-trafficking law to get a conviction and helped her out of her lifestyle so that she could move to another part of the state. This was their very first time to try talking to a victim who used to be only known as a prostitute.

“I always tell people we were lucky,” Hooker said, “in that our first case we were successful because it was a great lesson for me and for my detectives to see that, ‘Hey, there is so much more when you start peeling back the layers of what’s going on out here than just someone performing an act of prostitution for a certain amount of money.'”

While the human-trafficking law has been on the books now for a couple of years, there have still been other fights among legislators to pass laws to protect those who have been exploited through prostitution.

SB 1322, a state bill submitted by Calif. Sen. Holly Mitchell, aims to decriminalize prostitution for kids under 18. As of this week, the bill passed both the State Senate and Assembly. LA County Supervisor Don Knabe had been strongly advocating for the bill. He has argued that arresting minors involved with prostitution unfairly brands them as sex workers. Knabe argued that authorities should be concentrating on getting help for kids, not treating them as criminals. As of press time, SB 1322 was on its way from the State Legislature to Gov. Jerry Brown’s office for his approval.

“I don’t think anyone really realizes, until you talk to a survivor, the hell that these young girls have had to go through,” Knabe said in a phone interview. He added that the County Board of Supervisors had worked with the LA County Department of Probation to develop the First Responder Protocol. The Long Beach Police Department and two other agencies were first recruited to buy into a new way of dealing with juveniles involved with prostitution.
Instead of arresting a young man or woman, officers would contact a specific response team— that included an advocate— who promised to arrive and help the victim within 90 minutes.

For Supervisor Knabe, there were plenty of reasons why it was so important to ensure that juveniles could feel comfortable with so-called “wrap-around services,” those advocates who offer resources to young victims to help them leave the life of a sex worker.

The development of a new protocol required many of those involved on both sides of the law to exercise a little faith when it began in 2014. The Long Beach Police Department had to trust that a response team headed by the County would actually show up to help the police department within 90 minutes. The kids would have to believe police officers would not arrest them and that they could trust the people who would be designated to be their advocate. They could get legal help, housing and even food, if they needed it.

Michelle Guymon, director for the child-trafficking unit for the LA County Department of Probation, said that once the collaborating agencies created the pilot program with Long Beach Police and the Compton and Century Sherriff stations— one year prior to the protocol— there were 94 arrests of youth under 18 and then one year after implementing the protocol, there were six arrests for those three agencies.

Guymon also noticed another change when team members would start listening to other troubled kids who weren’t specifically linked to prostitution when they fell into the legal system.

“So, the more training we do, the more engagement we do with kids, the more we talk about it in more of [an] empathetic way versus a judgmental way, kids are now talking to us,” Guymon said. She explained that a juvenile involved with another kind of crime would disclose their own sad history of abuse.

A child might tell her, “Even though I got arrested for robbery, I am being exploited on the street. I am being forced to sell my body on the street.”