Human trafficking: It’s in our communities, and BART aims to be part of the solution
The girl was a 13-year-old cheerleader in Oakland, the 38-year-old man called her his girlfriend, and he bought her ice cream between the sex acts she did with strangers for $40 apiece.
BART Police Lt. Ed Alvarez helped get the conviction that sent that man to prison, and he’s a vocal advocate to raise awareness of human trafficking.
The BART Police Department is part of a regional effort to fight trafficking, recognizing that public transportation, as part of our communities, sees the same types of activities that occur in those communities. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the FBI’s top 13 hot spots in the nation for child sex trafficking, according to a 2009 FBI report.
TRAINING AND RAISING AWARENESS
BART has a two-pronged approach: training patrol officers to understand the cues and techniques in human trafficking, and also reminding the riding public of resources available, and the need to help with “see something, say something” awareness.
“Whatever’s going on in a community is going on in its transit system,” BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey said, citing his emphasis on a community-oriented policing and problem-solving philosophy (COPPS). “It’s incumbent upon everyone in the transit system to be vigilant in the protection of our daughters and sisters from these predators.”
The problem became vivid in a recent ride-along and walk-along with two officers who patrol areas that are key zones for trafficking, a broad category of crime that often manifests locally as the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Far from the myth of “victimless” crimes, vunlnerable victims are lured by older adults who direct their activities which, due to the youths not having cars, often involve BART and other public transportation to move victims around frequently to avoid detection.
WALKING AND WATCHING
Officer Russell Medeiros (below) and Officer Jimmy Chung (above) patrol primarily in BART’s Zone 1 and Zone 4, which include downtown Oakland and downtown San Francisco. They and other BART Police officers go through training to be alert to the dynamics of trafficking.
Driving down International Boulevard in Oakland, the officers pointed out things they watch for on their patrols: a young woman walking along the street without purpose, loitering, or flagging down cars, who may have no ID if contacted, because the people who control her activities keep her ID. It is often not the crude stereotype of a woman in spike heels and mini-skirt; it may be a middle-schooler in a sweatshirt with her school logo.
“These girls are brainwashed that this person is going to take care of them,” Medeiros said. (While males are also victims of trafficking, locally officers encounter females more often as the victims.) “They’re providing them food, shelter, and also keeping their identification and money. They’re convinced this person is looking out for them, and they’ll take the abuse and the threats.”
With newer girls, the traffickers will stay close by to keep an eye on “their property,” so officers look for eye contact or hand signals between a girl walking the street and an older man sitting at a nearby bus stop. “It all goes back to being aware and understanding of what could be a pimping and pandering situation,” Chung said. “You have to identify the problem and know all the ways to approach it.”
Chief Rainey noted that under the state law BART sought for prohibition orders, the law that lets serious and repeat offenders be barred from BART, the largest single category of prohibition orders issued was for domestic violence. In domestic violence calls, officers are trained to separate the parties and use a line of questioning that does not blame or accuse the victimized party. “What appears to be a boyfriend and girlfriend arguing, might not be,” Chung said.
The officers said public transportation offers a way for traffickers to blend in with a large group of people, as opposed to walking side-by-side with a young victim, where they would more easily draw the attention of police.
EDUCATION IS KEY
Police training is one key area of focus.
“This is a really important issue because a lot of times you’ll get that call, a runaway call, a DV (domestic call), and you just sense that something is not right,” BART Training Sgt. Carolyn Perea said. “Officers need to know how to ask the right questions.”
In the case Alvarez broke, he won the young victim’s trust, and she told him she was afraid for her life. “She did it out of fear that he was going to kill her,” he wrote in documentation of the case at the time. The man ruled over multiple young girls by threats and violence and sometimes took them on BART to their “work,” before dropping them back off at their schools in the afternoon.
Mary Kuhn is a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, which works in coordination with other agencies and is planning to locate a teen safe house in Alameda or Contra Costa County this year or next. The location is not identified publicly to protect the teens.
“This is a big issue that has to be addressed regionally, and a huge transportation system like BART has to be part of the solution,” Kuhn said.
Human trafficking is a growing local and national issue and the state law covering it (Penal Code Section 236-237) offers officers many lines of pursuit, Alvarez said, with enhancements for longer sentences when things like a weapon are involved.
With major events such as the Super Bowl hosted locally last January, or sports playoffs or championship series, additional victims are brought in through local airports, and BART serves both SFO and Oakland airports, the officers said. They said traffickers also rotate in victims from other areas of California such as Sacramento or Stockton, who might arrive via public transportation to end-of-line stations.
“The one conviction I did get, that made me feel good,” Medeiros said. He was working a bicycle patrol at the time, stopped a girl loitering on the street flagging down cars, and it turned out her trafficker was directly across the street and he ended up being arrested and convicted.
So, the issue is not hopeless. Every BART rider can help by being aware of suspicious activity and advising BART Police at 877.679.7000 of what they have seen. They can also use the BART Watch app to report possible criminal activity.
The poster below lists the national hotline to call if a person is a victim or wants to report a situation, and some tips on what to look for. It can be found also in all BART stations, helping to spread awareness there, too.
By MELISSA JORDAN
BART Senior Web Producer Bay Area Rapid Transit
Backpage.com has been found to encourage outsourced employees in India to allow the posting of adverts even if they are unsure whether the advert might be selling children for sex
Senators have voted to crack down on a website which serves as a huge network hub for human traffickers and which imposes stricter rules on clients selling a “hamster” than it does a child for sex.
The Senators found that Backpage.com, which generates money by posting adverts, outsourced its screening process to workers in India, insisting that they put up adverts selling sex even if they are unsure whether the adverts involve the sale of minors.
The bipartisan probe, led by Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Rob Portman, announced that the Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to hold the website Backpage.com in civil contempt of Congress after it refused to reveal details as to how it checks its adverts before posting them.
“The company essentially told us to get lost,” Senator Portman said in Congress.
Investigators obtained emails from executives in California which showed that its employees in India were often found to simply remove a word, phrase or image to “sanitize” the advert rather than remove it, covering up any suggestion of illegality, said Senator Portman.
One email found read: “IF IN DOUBT ABOUT UNDERAGE: the process for now should be to accept the ad …. However, if you ever find anything that you feel IS UNDERAGE AND is more than just suspicious, you can delete the ad[.]” “ONLY DELETE IF YOU REALLY VERY SURE PERSON IS UNDERAGE.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that 71 per cent of reported cases of child sex trafficking involve Backpage.com.
Anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope International also found that between 80 per cent and 100 per cent of their clients – victims of trafficking – have been bought and sold on Backpage.com, and has reported more than 400 cases of child sex trafficking across 47 states.
“By the way, despite being under subpoena, Backpage’s CEO [Carl Ferrer] refused to show up for that hearing—something Senator McCaskill and I plan to deal with at a later time,” added Senator Portman.
“The National Center also noted that Backpage has more stringent rules to post an ad to sell a pet, a motorcycle, or a boat, than it does to sell a person,” he added. “A user is required to submit a verified phone number for selling a hamster, but not when placing ads that could involve the sale of a child for sexual abuse.”
Backpage.com recently fought a lawsuit in Boston, where one of the plaintiffs alleged she was raped as a 15-year-old girl more than 1,000 times as a result of being advertised on the website, noted the Senator.
The site, which is located in Texas and employs more than 100 people, according to the South Florida Business Journal, has been found to contain topless pictures of children who are also registered as missing by authorities.
Senator Portman disclosed that he and Senator McCaskill are not looking to incriminate individuals – and in fact would urge the website to redact information about individual advertisers in the documents they hand over – but rather get the facts so they can create “smart legislation”.
SAN FRANCISCO — The FBI will take a new approach in its efforts to crack down on sex trafficking during the Super Bowl, reaching out to women and girls selling sex in the run-up to the game to give them a way out and get them to turn against their traffickers.
This year’s event at Levi’s Stadium in the San Francisco Bay Area, like other large sporting events, is expected to be a magnet for trafficking in part because many thousands of men will pour into the region, according to experts.
Victims’ advocates and local law enforcement officials say the FBI’s efforts are laudable, but they warn that victims are often too fearful to help prosecute their traffickers.
The new approach will rely on local nonprofit groups to make initial contact with the women and girls before the FBI steps in to provide them with access to its victims’ advocates and other services.
“The goal is to reach anyone who is being trafficked,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Doug Hunt, who manages the San Francisco office’s anti-trafficking efforts, which will also include sting operations the agency has used before previous Super Bowls.
Anti-trafficking advocates say there is no evidence that additional women or girls are forced into prostitution to serve the Super Bowl market. But those already trafficked may be moved to such events as their traffickers see opportunities to make money.
“This is hidden,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University. “The victims, buyers and sellers are all doing this behind a curtain, so it’s difficult to capture what’s happening.”
The FBI and local law enforcement agencies announced the arrests last February of 360 sex buyers and 68 traffickers and the recovery of 30 juvenile victims in a six-month operation in anticipation of the 2015 Super Bowl.
In 2014, the FBI said authorities recovered 16 children between the ages of 13 and 17 and arrested more than 45 pimps and their associates in Super Bowl-related operations.
Additionally, a coalition of law enforcement agencies and victims’ groups under the umbrella “No Traffic Ahead” has been meeting about the Super Bowl since 2014 and, among other efforts, training hospitality workers about how to spot trafficking victims.
ByCRIMESIDER STAFFAPJanuary 13, 2016, 8:16 AM
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (CBS SF) — The arrival of the Super Bowl to the Bay Area is increasing awareness of human trafficking related to the event.
San Francisco International Airport held training sessions for airline and airport personnel Monday to recognize the signs of human trafficking. The training sessions were the first in a series scheduled for all major Bay Area airports.
In a statement, SFO said the classes were timed to address the potential for trafficking activity related to Super Bowl 50.
At SFO Monday, trafficking survivor and American Airlines flight attendant Donna Lynne Hubbard shared with KPIX 5 her story of being a mother of three by the age of 20 “looking for acceptance in all the wrong places.”
“There’s nothing glamorous about waking up in the morning and wishing you didn’t wake up because you know what the rest of the day holds for you,” said Hubbard.
Hubbard said she was trafficked from Atlanta to LA and multiple cities in between. “But when I woke up in a room full of men climbing on top of me one at a time, I realized that nothing is worth selling my soul,” said Hubbard. “But by then, the shame and the guilt was overwhelming.”
Preventing this from happening to anyone else is her mission, especially as the Super Bowl approaches. While there have been many claims about the effect of a Super Bowl on the amount of prostitution in the host city, a 2011 study by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Womenshowed that large sporting events do not cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.
“It would be a misnomer to just say that by having a Super Bowl, it means there’s an automatic increase to trafficking,” said Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition founder Betty Ann Boeving. “It actually is an increase in awareness of the issue.”
Airplanes are an easy way for pimps to traffic people. Signs of trafficking to look can be if someone lacks luggage or personal items, is accompanied by someone far better-dressed, or if they’re fearful ofsecurity personnel.
“So often on the airplane and in the airport, what we see are women who are victims who don’t always understand that they are being victimized or what’s getting ready to happen to them,” said Hubbard.
Airline travelers who suspect someone is being forced against their will and may be a victim of human trafficking are urged to tell a flight attendant or airport authority.
“(We are) trying to send the deterrent message to traffickers that the Bay Area is going to be a very difficult place for them to do business,” said Boving.
Human traffickers predominantly use work and fiance visas to legally smuggle their victims into the United States, an audit conducted by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general (IG) found.
About half of the 32 known human trafficking cases identified by the IG involved the use of work or fiance visas to smuggle victims into the country. These victims were then subjected to forced servitude.
The IG also found 274 people investigate used family reunification visas to bring 425 relatives or visas into the country, some or all of which may be victims.
The IG found these cases by matching a database of human traffickers compiled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is responsible for investigating human trafficking in conjunction with local law enforcement, against data collected by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which processes special visa requests from human trafficking victims.
Human traffickers lured victims into the country in many cases by promising them lucrative work opportunities or marriage. Then, traffickers confiscated their passports, or otherwise threatened them into forced servitude. Others were smuggled into the country illegally, and their status was used against them.
The IG also found that from 2005 to 2014, about 3 percent of the more than 10,500 subjects of ICE human trafficking investigations petitioned the government for family reunification visas, and successfully brought hundreds of people into the country. Some of those cases are ongoing, so it’s unclear exactly how many of the 274 petitioners were actually human traffickers. But ICE data showed 18 people had been arrested for trafficking-related crimes, often for the sex trafficking of children.
Victims of human trafficking can apply for a special visa granting them temporary immigration benefits in a process handled by USCIS. The IG found victims often reported names or other identifying aspects of the human trafficking perpetrators, but USCIS did not always store the names or regularly share them with ICE, according to the report.
“Our review of USCIS case files identified instances where children who were sold, brought to the United States, and forced into involuntary servitude named the perpetrator as well as other potential victims in their T visa application,” the report said. “Although this information was extremely important, it was not captured in the USCIS database.”
The IG also found ICE did not adequately share information with USCIS, and is using an antiquated database system that inadequately gathers information.
“When ICE employees identified a human trafficker, they didn’t always advise USCIS regarding the victims they identified,” the report said. “ICE had to extensively manipulate its system to provide us with reasonably reliable data for our data matching and analysis.”
The IG recommended USCIS begin collecting all names and identifying information of human traffickers found in victims’ statements, and implement a procedure for sharing that data with ICE. The IG also recommended ICE in turn provide USCIS with available information on alleged human traffickers.
“Without concerted DHS efforts to collect and share information, the risk exists that some human traffickers may remain unidentified and free to abuse other individuals,” the report concluded.