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Pimps feed on twisting Californian dream

By Misty Showalter, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Human trafficking task force in California treats women as potential victims
  • Their aim is to help women find new lives and to jail the pimps
  • They arrange undercover sting operations and have community servcie workers inside the unit
  • Police officer: Human trafficking takes the dream and twists it

Orange County, California (CNN) -- "Hello? Hey, what are you doing, girl? You just woke up? You going to be free to hang out in a little bit?" Shane, a vice unit undercover investigator, is on the phone with a woman who placed an online ad offering adult services.

"Okay I'm going to head down to the Disneyland area and get a hotel." He's making a date, and choosing his words carefully.

"I just want to make sure I get what I need. Are you bringing condoms or do I need to bring condoms? You've got some? And it's 200 for an hour right?" Shane has become an expert at scoring that important criminal admission over the phone -- making sure there is no confusion that sex is expected on this date.

"From what I found, sometimes you can use too much jargon," Shane explained. "If you use too many street terms you can come off like a cop so I almost talk to them like, "Hey this is what I'm looking for" -- just common terms and maybe throw in just a little bit of street jargon.

"If you call them rude or real vulgar they'll just hang up on you. So, to them it's a business and they run it like it's a business, so there's that fine dance you have to do with them in negotiation you have to play to get the deal to work."

This is the first step in a human trafficking operation by the vice unit. Next, the team will wait for Shane's date at a local hotel, hoping to eventually grab the date's pimp.

Shane works for Anaheim Police Department -- one of a raft of agencies that make up the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force or OCHTTF.

The task force covers an area south of Los Angeles known for ritzy neighborhoods, tourist destinations and beaches.

In recent months, the fight against prostitution has been refocused and now the prostitutes are treated as victims.

"It's not knocking what we did before," explained Sergeant Craig Friesen, head of Anaheim's vice unit. "You'd go out, arrest the girls, you do John stings, you arrest the Johns, but with those arrests they're often low-grade misdemeanor arrests where the people either receive a very minimal sentence or they're released, oftentimes working in the street 24 hours later.

"With us changing our focus to trying to arrest the pimps, pimping carries a three year mandatory sentence here in California, so to us we have more of an impact because if we can arrest one pimp we can in theory shut down three or four girls because if their pimp's out, it gives them the opportunity to escape the life that they're in."

The Orange County task force is one of 42 federally funded human trafficking task forces across the United States.

Many agencies are part of the task force -- from local police departments like Anaheim and Westminster, to federal agencies like ICE and the IRS, which help with immigration and translation issues.

The FBI lends agents to the task force, and one agent frequently works with Anaheim's vice unit via the FBI's domestic child sex trafficking task force known as Innocence Lost.

By treating accused prostitutes as victims, services such as the county's Community Service Programs and the Salvation Army can be used. These non-enforcement services often play key roles in the task force as they try to help the victims start new lives.

"I think what I'm struck most by is the similarity between the stories," said Heidi Thi, the supervisor of the human trafficking program at CSP.

"I could have somebody who was sold as a child in China and brought here to Orange County to work as a slave in somebody's house, or I could be talking to a domestic minor who's been trafficked for sex who was from Northern California and was down here in Orange County -- and it's striking how similar those stories can be, that there was an abusive or neglectful home, or that there was a dream they had that life could be better. And somebody told them, "Yes, life can be better, come with me and I will show you how I can make life better for you." And trusting that person, they went and found themselves in a horrible situation."

Anaheim's operation that started with Shane's phone call was successful.

It led to the arrest of a man for pimping and pandering -- and two women victims taken from the streets and into the arms of CSP.

One of the dates was a 17-year-old girl. Her age means she is automatically considered a victim of human trafficking. CSP hopes to convince the women to leave the life of prostitution.

"I think with a trafficking survivor, one of the most important things we can do is to give them choices," said Thi.

"The situation that they come from, they've been told where to go, what to do when they get there and when to do it, down to minor daily things like eating, using the restroom, going to sleep and waking up. So the more choices that we can give them helps them practice that self-determination."

Fighting forced prostitution, while a big part of the task force's mission, is only one facet of human trafficking in Orange County.

CSP has also helped victims of forced labor, domestic servitude and servile marriage.

The county task force is seven years old, and in that time the team says it has conducted dozens of operations -- more than 60 in Westminster alone.

Anaheim is the task force's newest member, and only nine months after receiving federal human trafficking grant money, the team has seen great success.

Sergeant Friesen said the original goal was one pimping arrest in the first year. The arrest from Shane's date was the 13th in the first nine months.

He added: "Once we started looking for it -- and almost stopped ignoring it -- we started finding it everywhere."

Lieutenant Derek Marsh, who heads up Westminster Police's human trafficking unit, sums up what drives the task force.

"Human trafficking goes against why you become a police officer, why you're a human being. It's really an ethical imperative. There's really nobody who can stand seeing a child or a woman or a man exploited. It's who you are when you go to serve the public as a police officer.

"You're trying to make it easy so that everyone has an equal opportunity to have their shot at making something of themselves. And human trafficking takes that dream and twists it."

 
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