In late 2014, when Jim McDonnell was elected as Sheriff of Los Angeles County, he realized that his agency faced an enormous challenge: how to combat sex trafficking. There was extensive evidence that this horrific crime had become widespread in the region. The National Human Trafficking Center’s hotline for reporting cases was receiving more calls from California than any other state in the country by far. What’s more, child sex trafficking had become an integral source of revenue for gangs in the Los Angeles area.
Before 2015, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) had handled these incidents as criminal cases of juvenile prostitution and investigated them with just two detectives and a team from the LASD Vice Unit. Moving forward, LASD would need to develop a better-resourced and more sophisticated and collaborative approach to combatting human trafficking. McDonnell therefore issued a statement in October 2015 instructing LASD to stop using the term “child prostitute.” He also challenged LASD’s Major Crimes Bureau to develop a plan to establish the LASD Human Trafficking Bureau and the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force. As McDonnell said, this partner-driven approach reflected his belief that, “All of us are more powerful than any one of us.”
Still, LASD and its collaborators faced challenging questions. How could they foster cooperation among stakeholders accustomed to working in silos? Would they be able to obtain the financial and in-kind support to sustain the initiative? Would they be able to facilitate a cultural shift that prioritized a victim-centered approach?
McDonnell’s recognition of the need to pursue new strategies to combat sex trafficking dated to 2010 when he became Chief of the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD). , Soon after assuming the post, McDonnell reviewed the department’s reports to see if “anything jumped out at [him].” What struck him was that the agency was arresting a large number of young girls for prostitution. Upon further inspection, McDonnell realized that the problem ran deeper. “The more we dug into that,” he elaborated, “we realized that there are pimps involved, and they are exploiting and victimizing these young children.” LBPD began treating the children as victims rather than criminals and started focusing its prosecutorial efforts on the pimps who were abusing and exploiting them. As McDonnell noted, this represented a major “culture…[and] mind[set] shift” for the department’s Vice Unit; however, the change proved effective and made LBPD’s strategy a “model for the state.”
Upon his election as Sheriff of Los Angeles County, McDonnell drew on his experience in Long Beach and augmented LASD’s efforts to combat sex trafficking. At the time, LASD treated commercial sex cases involving minors as cases of juvenile prostitution. In addition, just two detectives from LASD’s Major Crimes unit responded to sex trafficking complaints, while the Vice unit arrested prostitutes (including juveniles) and cited their customers (the so-called “Johns”). Given the growing prevalence, sophistication, and harmful consequences of sex trafficking in Los Angeles, this approach was woefully insufficient. Local gangs had embraced the activity because it bolstered their street credibility and income (a pimp could make 600 to 800 thousand dollars annually). What’s more, those groups were operating inconspicuously because their efforts were organized via difficult-to-track modes, such as the Internet and cell phones. Most disturbingly, the human toll of sex trafficking was enormous. It primarily targeted young children, 59 percent of whom came from the foster care system.
McDonnell therefore called on LASD’s Major Crimes Unit to develop a strategy focused on addressing juvenile victimization, targeting demand for sex crimes, and prosecuting traffickers to the full extent of the law. This became the foundation for the approach of the new LASD Human Trafficking Bureau, which would incorporate the efforts of approximately 45 LASD personnel. This represented a significant staff commitment because, as McDonnell explained, LASD, like many police agencies, is an “extremely lean” organization. What’s more, LASD was pleased that detectives from a wide variety of units (including Fraud and Cyber Crimes, Operation Safe Streets, Special Victims Bureau (child abuse), and Major Crimes) along with many of the organization’s most talented staff members applied. The Sheriff elaborated, “The results we got were even better than we anticipated we would get…. This…is not something that anybody can do…. It takes a special person, and we were very fortunate to be able to get some [of] our best and our brightest jumping into this.”
While creating an internal bureau to combat sex trafficking represented a significant step, LASD also needed to develop a collaborative strategy with a range of regional partners. This was primarily because LASD’s jurisdiction falls within county lines, whereas, as McDonnell said, “the criminals don’t [operate within] geographic borders.” Early in his tenure as Sheriff, McDonnell and LASD’s Human Trafficking Bureau therefore initiated a dialogue with a diverse group of federal, state, local, and non-profit partners about establishing a regional task force to combat sex trafficking.
Those conversations quickly gained momentum. All of the groups that LASD approached—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations, and the California Highway Patrol—expressed enthusiasm about participating. The task force also received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and formed a partnership with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. This allowed the task force to combine the resources of local, state, and federal law enforcement with the prosecutorial authority of the District Attorney and U.S. Attorney to pursue its three-pronged vision: to 1) “identify and rescue…victims utilizing a victim-centered approach”; 2) “aggressively investigate, arrest, and prosecute traffickers”; and 3) “reduce demand through covert operations.” “What we wanted to do,” McDonnell said of the task force, which was officially launched in November 2015, “was co-locate a number of different stakeholders in this, where we could have a one-stop shop, from the inception of bringing on a case, through prosecution.”
The creation of the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force was another critical sign of progress; nonetheless, LASD and its partners now faced the challenge of effectively implementing their new approach. This hinged in part on fostering a collaborative dynamic among numerous disparate organizations. The task force included 25 government agencies (five federal, four state, and ten municipal) and 11 non-governmental organizations, many of which, as the Sheriff explained, had previously operated in silos. As McDonnell acknowledged, there were initially “some cultural issues…[involving] trying to get everybody on the same page.” Being co-located helped to focus the group on a common goal. “At this point,” McDonnell said, “it doesn’t matter with which agency the detective is employed; because they all work as equal partners on the regional task force, share the same mission, and handle the same cases.”
LASD and its partners also had to develop and implement tactics to realize their vision of helping victims, prosecuting traffickers, and reducing demand. The task force has therefore trained and deployed decoy personnel who can identify and help prosecute the pimps and “Johns.” The group has also expanded the County’s first responder protocol for commercially sexually exploited children. The protocol—which involves the Human Trafficking Bureau, the Departments of Probation and Children and Family Services, and victim-centered service providers—prioritizes an “expeditious response”; “a victim-centered, strength-based approach”; and an effort to “build relationships with victims.” More broadly, the protocol has helped to clarify the role of the task force’s different members. McDonnell said, “They know right away when someone comes in; the time of day or night does not matter. They know the expectations of victims as well as the expectations of their task force partners.”
Finally, the task force has prioritized messaging and in particular emphasized that children can neither be viewed nor treated as prostitutes. To that end, the organization’s mantra is “There’s No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute.” This reflects the notion that a young child cannot willingly prostitute him/herself and calls attention to the gravity of this crime. McDonnell explained:
I believe if we call it what it is, the more people will understand how depraved sex trafficking truly is. You know, [the public] people, even the Johns, have this idea that it’s a victimless crime, and they rationalize the behavior. But, this is slavery; an immoral practice we outlawed more than 150 years ago. And, it’s happening all around us by everyday people who somehow maintain a positive self-image.
A little over two years into his tenure as Sheriff, McDonnell still sees opportunities to strengthen efforts to combat human trafficking. He would like to expand the task force’s use of cyber technology, involve more local partners, and educate the public and other stakeholders who may be able to report instances of sex trafficking. “[Too] often,” McDonnell said, “when we arrest somebody and somebody says something, they say, ‘Well you know, I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t want to bother you.’ Bother us? You’re saving a life for some young kid by calling us, and that’s the kind of message we’re trying to get out there.”
Even as LASD strives to disseminate this message, the organization’s efforts have already made an enormous impact. Since November 2015, LASD and its partners have rescued 177 victims (including 130 children) and made 649 arrests. More broadly, they have contributed to a realization that it is imperative to examine problems through a fresh lens. “You think,” McDonnell said, “How many other things, [on] how many other fronts, are we doing… the same thing on that? If we see it differently, we may treat it differently and get better results.”
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