L.A. County sheriff announces new task force to combat human trafficking

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell on Thursday announced the formation of a human trafficking task force aimed at providing additional relief to the hundreds of men and women ensnared here by sex traffickers each year.

The unit, which will include a mix of officers from the Sheriff's Department, the FBI, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and other agencies, will also focus on bringing stiffer prosecutions against traffickers and johns who interact with minors, McDonnell said.

“We are embracing a three-pronged approach that I have no doubt will be a national model as we focus on identifying and rescuing the victims and addressing their needs while working with our justice partners to aggressively investigate, arrest and prosecute the perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law,” McDonnell said.

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Sheriff's Capt. Merill Ladenheim, who will lead the task force, said the sharing of intelligence between police and social service agencies could also help investigators quickly identify and locate runaway children and teens, who often fall under the sway of traffickers. 

“Many of the times they’re running back to a trafficker or have already been corrupted, so that’s why we’re responding immediately to find these girls and boys, because absolutely unspeakable things are happening," he said.

McDonnell and Ladenheim spoke often of taking a "victim-centered" approach to trafficking, a sentiment echoed by various state leaders in recent months.

Speaking at a UCLA symposium on trafficking earlier this year, Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said at least 59% of children arrested on prostitution-related charges in Los Angeles County had spent time in the state's foster care system, which she described as broken.

Last year, the state Legislature passed a bill that extended the statute of limitations for victims of trafficking and torture to sue their abusers, increasing the window from five years to 10. 

California is a hot spot for human trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center's hotline has received more than 2,000 reports of human trafficking cases in California since 2012, the most of any state in the U.S.

The hotline has received 477 reports of trafficking cases in California so far in 2015, more than twice the number reported in Texas, the state from which the hotline received its second highest number of calls.

The new unit will be based in Monterey Park, McDonnell said, adding that he hopes the task force will allow law enforcement to provide better access to relief resources for trafficking victims. Roughly 85 people from various law enforcement and social service agencies will be assigned to the task force, Ladenheim said.

“We will also develop new approaches aimed at rescuing young victims and addressing their needs in a victim-centered way," McDonnell said. "Pure and simple, human trafficking is the cruel, dehumanizing exploitation of the most vulnerable in our community.”

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

5:24 p.m.: This story updated with comments from Capt. Merrill Ladenheim, who will lead the task force.

This story first published at 4:30 p.m.

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