In its third year in operation, the San Bernardino County Human Trafficking Task Force has been active rescuing victims of trafficking and prostitution throughout the region.

The task force was created in 2017 and includes the participation of San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, Redlands Police Department, Ontario Police Department, California State Parole, Homeland Security and FBI. Including two federal investigators, the task force joins the efforts of seven regularly assigned investigators.

According to a sergeant leading the task force (he asked that his identity be withheld so as not to compromise the task force’s anti-human trafficking operations), the task force rescues 75 to 90 victims of confirmed human trafficking and prostitution crimes a year. In addition to this, the task force also assists in many other missing person and runaway cases in their constant search for human trafficking victims.

Teaming with the district attorney’s office has enabled the investigators to get more convictions in sex industry crimes. According to Sergeant, to date, human traffickers investigated by the task force have been sentenced to a total of more than 400 years imprisonment.

On May 20, the task force, working San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department MET investigators, arrest 13 suspects for solicitation of prostitution an in-call hotel “John” sting operation conducted in Redlands.

New approach

With the creation of the task force came a fundamental change in how anti-human trafficking operations are conducted by the county by placing an increased focus on relating to the prostitutes as victims rather than suspects.

“We’re very victim centered in our approach. Our goal is to locate and rescue the victims,” Sergeant said. “They’re no longer treated as suspects. In previous efforts to create a blanket fix to prostitution police departments would go out and arrest everyone ⎯ the ‘Johns’ who are the consumers, the victims and the traffickers.”

On the week of Jan. 26, the task force participated in a statewide anti-human trafficking “Operation Reclaim and Rebuild” in which 20 victims were rescued from human trafficking and 106 human trafficking suspects were arrested.

When not participating in sting operations, the task force conducts constant searches for victims for, as Sergeant said, “Human trafficking is a constant crime occurring every hour of every day.”

“What makes us different is we are very proactive. We go out to areas or search online for opportunities to contact victims,” Sergeant said. “We will initiate an intervention even if we don’t see them participating in something illegal.”

Sergeant said everyone on the task force and those from other agencies and organizations (such as shelters and nonprofits) that partner with the task force are extremely dedicated to the cause.

“Once officers become exposed to the lives these victims are forced to live, it becomes a very personal and heartfelt desire to rescue these victims the best they can. [The investigators] become super passionate,” Sergeant said.

“It’s a tough job that takes the right person with the right mindset,” Sergeant said, noting the pain and destruction investigators are exposed to when rescuing victims, especially juveniles, from the sex industry.

The investigators also have to be honest and genuine in their interactions with the victims.

“These girls very street savvy and we have to be genuine and build trust,” Sergeant said.

Building these relationships is made more difficult by the traffickers telling their victims that law enforcement officers can’t be trusted and that they want to take the victims from “the family.”

Once these relationships are created, victims often become partners in the task force’s efforts to rescue other victims.

The victims

Sergeant said the best way to characterize prostitution and human trafficking is as modern-day slavery, depriving the victims of the human rights and freedoms.

“The traffickers put these girls out on the street, force them into the work and then take all their earnings,” Sergeant said.

While a few males have been rescued, the majority of victims are girls and women. According to Sergeant, about 50 percent of their rescued victims have been girls under the age 18, and 50 percent of those are under the age of 16.

No particular race or economic status is more susceptible than any other, Sergeant said. What the majority of victims have in common is coming from a broken home and having a feeling that something is lacking from their lives. Sergeant said this could mean foster kids, girls with just one parent, girls being raised by family other than their parents or girls with disengaged parents.

The traffickers prey upon the girls’ weaknesses and feelings of deficiency in their personal, family and social lives, and coerce the girls into prostitution through false pretenses. The traffickers promise to provide what their victims feel they are missing.

This is often done through social media.

Once victims are rescued, depending on their situation, they are reunited with their families and/or connected to partnering resources, such as the Open Door Family Assistance Program in San Bernardino, to help restore their lives.

Social media

According to Sergeant, a lot of the human trafficking victims, especially the juveniles are targeted through social media. Because victims are targeted and contacted through social media anyone can become a victim.

Traffickers seek out and groom potential victims by reviewing the personal information their victims post online.

“So many of these victims use social media as a journal, putting a lot of personal information online that traffickers exploit by claiming to fill the gaps in their victims’ lives,” Sergeant said.

“Everybody is on social media, and every family allows it into their household,” Sergeant said. “It becomes dangerous if parents don’t stay involved and don’t watch what their kids are watching and doing online.”

The traffickers

The task force’s goal is to attack regional human trafficking at the most basic level, which means much of its enforcement takes place at the street level.

Generally human traffickers and pimps operate as one or two people working a group of victims. They are often working as part of a local gang or for organized crime.

According to Sergeant, San Bernardino County also sees a lot of human trafficking activity tied to organized crime in Asia and South America.

“It’s all about the money,” Sergeant said. “The sex industry is such a money maker that the lure of easy and big money for the criminal element is too much to resist.”

Selling girls in human trafficking can mean greater rewards with fewer risks than other criminal activities, such as narcotics. The risks associated with constantly resupplying narcotics are greater then those of selling of women over and over, sergeant said.

To lure victims, the traffickers paint a glamorized image of the sex industry and make the girls feel needed and “part of a family.” This glamorized image of prostitution has also been helped by movies and television, Sergeant said.

Training

In addition to rescuing victims and arresting suspects, the task force has also created human trafficking training programs for law enforcement officers and other professions. The training introduces the officers to the oppressive lifestyles human trafficking victims are subjected to and trains them to identify signs of human trafficking.

“It often shocks the social consciousness of new officers and other people who have not been exposed to the sex industry,” Sergeant said of the training.

The training also reinforces the policy of approaching the prostitutes as victims rather than suspects.

The program began as advanced officer training within the sheriff’s department. In an effort to have new police officers trained from the beginning of their careers, the training was made part of required curriculum for graduating from the sheriff’s academy. This training is also offered to outside law enforcement agencies.

The task force also visits hospitals staffs to train them in understanding and identifying human trafficking.

Based on the successes of San Bernardino County’s task force and other similar programs, human trafficking training was made a statewide requirement by California’s POST-certified Police Officer Basic Training.

According to Sergeant, training new officers and others has already increased awareness for the crime and led to an increase in reports on human trafficking.

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