Human Trafficking in San Diego: Law Enforcement

By: Eitan Tye and Janet Saldana

Human trafficking is an $810 million industry in San Diego, second only to the illegal drug industry, and it affects more people in the city than gun violence and gangs. San Diego County has had a growing problem with human trafficking, and the battle against this industry focuses on Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and Partnerships. For example, between 2010 and 2012, 1277 victims were identified, 2552 were investigations led, and 1798 individuals were arrested. Prosecutions have more tripled over the past five years. In 2009, only nine cases of sex trafficking were prosecuted which increased to 43 cases in 2013.

With a crime that isn’t always black and white and tends to cross borders, it was essential for the San Diego Police Department to combine forces with other local, state, and federal prosecutors, governmental leaders, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In January 2015, a press release announced the creation of the San Diego Violent Human Trafficking & Child Exploitation Task Force (VHTCE). The task force combines the effort and eases sharing of information between groups including the California Highway Patrol, several Police Departments, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, the FBI, ICE/Homeland Security Investigations, the City Attorney’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the U.S. Marshals.

For these law enforcement groups, it is necessary to think about how human trafficking will come to an end. In simple terms, this will happen when the demand is low and there is no more profit to be made. The number of buyers can be reduced by educating the buyers about the effects of their actions and also by increasing the punishment for contributing to the act. Assembly Bill 1708 addresses the more severe repercussions for the buyers while also separating the buying and selling of sex. This decriminalizes prostitution for minors who are by definition being victimized. As an additional aid to victims, Senate Bill 939 was passed to streamline prosecutions and consolidate charges into a single trial. This not only reduces court costs, but also minimizes the trauma experienced by victim witnesses who are testifying. Another bill, Assembly Bill 1681, is focusing on the use of the internet to advance sex trafficking businesses. Although it is having trouble getting passed, it would require smartphones manufactured after 2016 and sold in California to be able to be decrypted by its operating system provider, so that violators can be identified and prosecuted. Besides promoting these types of laws, attorney groups can also assist victims in applying for T and U visas, which are visas specifically for victims of human trafficking. Last, a huge part of the ‘Prevention’ method is to provide training to a variety of audiences on how to identify and respond to the crime. Law enforcement against human trafficking covers a wide spectrum of activities but in the end, the goal is to hold perpetrators accountable while treating victims with dignity.

Law enforcement agencies are also aiming to combat human trafficking by educating people in the San Diego area about how to spot victims in public places, and by combating stereotypes about human trafficking. Many people think that human trafficking occurs behind closed doors with victims being physically trapped in a certain location, but according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan, human trafficking can take place in many public areas including malls, bus stops, and even high schools. Victims of trafficking can sometimes be seen in public places with perpetrators, and can exhibit specific signs such as lacking their own travel documents, avoiding eye contact, not responding when greeted, and generally having someone else speak for them in public situations. In addition to the more publicized crime of sex trafficking, Stephan notes that labor trafficking is a similarly large problem in San Diego, and often revolves around debt slavery. Labor trafficking is particularly concentrated in the construction, restaurant and hospitality industries. Stephan’s office has been partnering with local law enforcement to train employers in the hotel and airline industries on how to spot victims of trafficking. In addition to their efforts to educate the public about how to spot victims, law enforcement agencies have established special numbers to call and text if people sense that someone could be a victim of trafficking. According to Stephan, 60% of cases are solved due to community reporting.