In 2010 the Anaheim Police Department (APD) vice detail in Orange County, California, realized that most of the prostitutes it had contact with came from similar backgrounds. Analysis of their common circumstances and reasons for prostituting caused investigators to believe that they were sex trafficking victims. This shift in perspective produced an innovative approach to addressing the problem.
The majority of prostitutes interviewed by APD vice investigators believed that selling themselves was their only alternative for survival. Many came from dysfunctional homes, had few friends or family members who cared about them, and were drug addicts or alcoholics. Most of these women were between 18 and 29 years old. Unfortunate situations and poor choices made them vulnerable. Most of the women described their path into the sex trade as a boyfriend transforming into a pimp or a girlfriend becoming a prostitute. Even if the woman could call for help, she had no one to rescue her. The man told her that they needed money and that she would have to earn it. People see a pimp as someone who obtains customers for a prostitute. The reality is that they use manipulation, threats, and violence to keep these women from leaving. They depend on the women they recruit into prostitution and use mental, emotional, and physical abuse to keep the women generating money. Alone and removed from family and friends, these women have no money and depend on their pimps for food, shelter, and clothing.
After close analysis of prostitutes and their situations, the APD instituted a new approach where it viewed prostitution as possible human trafficking. The recognition, rescue, and aid of these victims became the most important tactic in addressing the problem. Traditionally, the role of law enforcement agencies is to enforce laws. The response to street prostitution has been to arrest the women, a narrow approach that usually did not involve the pimp. These tactics did little to end the problem and pimps simply moved their activity.
For the APD, the goal became rescuing women from their pimps and redirecting their lives, reducing prostitution one life at a time. This paradigm shift meant considering prostitutes as potential victims and identifying pimps as suspects. This role transition became the basis of a new approach where prostitution activity was viewed as potential human sex trafficking. The department adopted new strategies to assist women in escaping prostitution, help them realize their situations and the circumstances that got them there, provide services to assist with redirecting their lives in a positive direction, and seek their cooperation in pursuing the pimps who trafficked them as prostitutes.
As of October 31, 2012, 38 pimps have been arrested and charged. Twenty were convicted and 18 are awaiting trial. The Anaheim vice detail has rescued 52 human trafficking victims; only 4 are known to have returned to prostitution.
Learn more at Steve Marcin’s FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin article: Prostitution and Human Trafficking: A Paradigm Shift.