If you ask police officials about the prostitution problem in Long Beach, you won’t hear them spin stories of happy hookers, sexually liberal females who have freely chosen on their own to offer sex for money. These days, the official reports describe women trapped in prostitution. Many of them come from abusive homes, vulnerable to pimps who have exploited them and even terrorized them to keep them holed up in motel rooms.
At a September meeting of the City’s Public Safety Committee, Deputy Chief David Hendricks of the Long Beach Police Department described just how dire the circumstances are for many of the victims of prostitution, and he painted a grim picture of the power that pimps can wield. Some have lured juvenile girls away from their homes and families. The deputy chief described other times when pimps have isolated women from their country of origin or have threatened the women.
He told the Committee that the department has seen abuse and torture in a number of circumstances. Hendricks described one woman who attempted to escape a situation in which there was “physical abuse similar to what we would find in a POW camp.”
There were other sad stories in the deputy chief’s summary of the cases the department has seen in recent times. Some pimps will mark their females with tattoos across chests or faces to show other pimps that these women belong to them. Some women are told when and if they can eat. Some pimps make sure their women carry a cell phone at all times, but the prostitutes are too frightened to call home or ask police for help.
This year, as of Nov. 4, there are 23 people in Long Beach who have been rescued from prostitution, according to Lt. Dan Pratt of the Vice Investigations Detail of the Long Beach Police Department. They are all females, including about 19 girls under the age of 18.
Not all of the pimps have been male. Pratt confirmed that there has been one “legitimate female pimp” in the city as well as two other women who were arrested for pimping and/or pandering and worked for one male pimp.
He also said that all 11 cases of human trafficking this year have been directly related to prostitution.
Pratt described how the pimps have been able to exploit women’s weaknesses.
“The suspects have gotten incredibly good at manipulating the girls,” Pratt added. “And the girls oftentimes feel…like there’s no way out of this.” He described some girls who, even after they have contact with police officers, still won’t talk about their captors.
“No female chooses this [as a lifestyle],” he concluded. “Certainly no juvenile has even the ability to choose this as a lifestyle.” Pratt explained later that since minors cannot consent to sex, they are automatically treated as victims whether or not they want to prosecute the pimp.
“So it’s our responsibility to get them out of the life and get them the help they need,” Pratt concluded.
“Human trafficking” may be the correct– or even the nice– term for this level of prostitution. Some survivor advocacy groups of human trafficking often refer to it as “slavery,” but that’s not a term that has taken hold in the media.
Prostitution might garner a different kind of attention if it were called slavery, since the choice is removed for many of the women and since they usually cannot walk away from their pimps and leave behind a life in the sex trade.
New laws have offered the chance for the police department to see some of their prostitution cases in a new light– as possible human-trafficking violations, which carry stiffer penalties for the pimps responsible for forcing victims into the sex trade.
California Proposition 35, otherwise known as the Californians Against Sexual Exploitations Act (CASE Act), increased the penalties for human trafficking. Violators could face up to 15 years to life in state prison and up to $1.5 million in fines.
Pratt said that the police have been investigating prostitution for many years, but the penalty for human trafficking became a felony only recently.
“Now that we are looking at human-trafficking cases differently,” Pratt said, “we are discovering now that a lot of the cases actually fit better into human trafficking than they did in prostitution.”
He confirmed that human-trafficking cases are filed with the district attorney’s office. If the violation fits a federal crime in which criminals could face even more time, the police department also may give the case to the Homeland Security Department, Pratt added.
This new perspective on how to handle prostitution cases and charge suspects may open the window for the City Council to consider making key changes to police staffing.
Vice Mayor Robert Garcia, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, acknowledged in a phone interview Wednesday that, since the budget has already been passed, if the Council wanted to give the police additional support, it would have to happen at a time when the City could possibly see increased revenues.
“Human trafficking is completely barbaric [and] unacceptable,” Garcia said. “And I know the police department is doing the best they can to deal with this clearly tragic and sad issue. So anything we can do to support them, I think we’re going to try to do.”
Garcia said that at the next Council meeting at City Hall on Nov. 12, Police Chief Jim McDonnell is expected to present a report on the cost and benefit of having a sex-crimes/sex-trafficking unit. It will be an opportunity for the chief to make the case for increased staff resources to focus on these kinds of crimes.
It might be a tough case to make, depending on how the Council views the extent of the problem and its priorities for public safety.
Pratt said earlier this week that, at that time, the department was not working on any active human-trafficking cases. All 11 cases this year have already been forwarded to either the district attorney or federal prosecutors.
Chief McDonnell may make the argument that additional resources dedicated to sex trafficking may uncover a wider problem in the city. The department has already discovered a link to gang activity. Pratt acknowledged that the majority of their human-trafficking and prostitution cases have suspects with gang ties.
Hendricks has also concluded that the department has only “scratched the surface” when it comes to addressing these cases.
“What we need to recognize is,” the deputy chief said in September, “that the gang members of today are more sophisticated and more organized, and we need to be just like that in our response.”
Presently, all human-trafficking cases in the city are handled by the Vice Detail which is under the Investigation Bureau headed by Hendricks.
Nancy Pratt, a police spokesperson, emphasized that the department encourages anyone who is a victim of human trafficking to speak up and contact the police.
“Whether it be sex- or labor-related [human trafficking], we want them to come forward,” Pratt added. “And we want to be able to provide the help and resources that they need to get them out of this business and hopefully to help them put their lives back together again.”
To report human trafficking contact Long Beach Police Department’s Vice Investigations Detail at (562) 570-7219.