After victim testimony, police panel calls on City Council to bolster LAPD anti-trafficking work
After hearing powerful first-hand accounts of Los Angeles police officers rescuing children from sex traffickers, the Police Commission on Tuesday called on the City Council to protect the LAPD’s anti-trafficking efforts against budget cuts.
“Anything less, in my opinion, is an abdication of our responsibility as a city,” said William Briggs, the commission’s vice president, during the panel’s weekly virtual meeting.
Briggs said he was angered by the fact that children are bought, sold and raped in L.A., and riled by claims in some corners that police who work such cases aren’t worthy of robust funding and prioritization.
“It outrages me that it is still going on and [that] we would have those who would say, ‘Oh, don’t allow the police to go in and help the victims,’” Briggs said. “That simply outrages me to no end.”
At Briggs’ suggestion, the panel unanimously voted to submit to the City Council a report about the impact of recent budget cuts on Los Angeles Police Department anti-trafficking work, along with a letter directly requesting that the council ensure that funding is restored and protected.
Commission President Eileen Decker, in backing the move, said sex trafficking victims are “the most vulnerable [people] in our community” and “need our protection.”
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who requested the LAPD report along with Council President Nury Martinez, said Tuesday that human trafficking is “a major issue here and around the world,” and that he and Martinez will “make sure that the priorities of the department reflect the realities of the city and of our districts, so that this type of police work continues to be supported.”
Other members of the City Council did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The commission’s vote came amid a broader cultural conversation about defunding police and reducing their role in nonviolent incidents. Further, it came after the commission had received comments from activists who argued that the LAPD’s anti-trafficking initiatives “legitimize the criminalization of sex work,” increase policing of Black and brown communities and enhance surveillance of sex workers and “locations associated with sex work.”
It also came as LAPD leaders continue to bemoan the impact of a $150-million budget cut this summer and strategize how to avoid hundreds of potential layoffs under a still-evolving plan by city officials to close an estimated $650-million budget shortfall.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore has repeatedly said the cuts would mean reductions in specialized services as he prioritized patrol coverage and investigations into surging violent crime. On Tuesday, he said he has tried to protect staffing on the anti-trafficking task forces, as well, but acknowledged that an order slashing overtime details had reduced work by those teams.
Advocates for trafficking victims — including two who were victims themselves — told the commission that the LAPD’s anti-trafficking work was indispensable, that cuts should be reversed and that the teams should be protected.
Oree Freeman said she was pushed into sex work at age 11 in South-Central L.A., raped seven to 15 times a night and struggled for years to break free before connecting with mentors in the police department who helped her get out.
“It’s a very hard journey to not just survive in the life but ... to get back on your feet and keep going,” she said.
She praised the department for shifting its focus away from thinking of teenage sex workers as “prostitutes” to defending them as “victims and survivors” and said work by highly trained officers in the LAPD’s anti-trafficking task forces to get to know kids caught up in trafficking — and eventually get them out — must be protected.
Jasmine Edwards, a case manager with the organization Saving Innocence, said she has had “countless interactions with LAPD in rescuing children” in recent years and sees those officers as “the ignition point” for connecting children in the sex trade with other resources in the area that can help them chart a new course.
“Law enforcement plays a pivotal role in the rescue and recovery of our children,” she said.
Officials said L.A. is a hub for sex trafficking nationally, pointing to a joint local and federal investigation that recently rescued 33 children in Los Angeles.
The report the department produced for the City Council put the impact of recent budget cuts on efforts to confront that reality in stark terms, suggesting that the city’s fiscal crisis threatened to undermine years of progress.
While $1.5 million was earmarked this fiscal year for extra trafficking case work in South L.A., West L.A. and the Valley Bureau, that funding was clawed back by the department amid the broader budget reductions, the report said. Overtime work on trafficking cases was eliminated, and spending on rental cars to keep undercover officers out of sight as they pursue traffickers was also cut, officials said.
In the Valley Bureau, sex trafficking arrests from July through October were down 40% year over year, and in the South Bureau they were down 15%, the report said. There were zero overtime details in the two areas in that time frame, compared with 64 the year prior.
Moore and other police officials warned that additional cuts would further undermine their anti-trafficking efforts, including along high-trafficked tracts like Figueroa Street in South L.A. — and at the worst possible time.
Since the pandemic began and strip clubs and other legal venues for sex work were shuttered, sex trafficking and prostitution has soared in L.A., officials said, with people coming from other cities in California and from across the country to work here.
“Without the funding, you’ll see a decrease in our presence; you’ll see a decrease in our ability to do as many operations and take these cases through to prosecution,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Regina Scott, who oversees South L.A.
“If this funding goes away, and we cannot keep our foot on the gas, we are going to see these problems come back to communities where, over the last few decades, we have worked very hard to eradicate them,” said Cmdr. Alan Hamilton of the Valley Bureau.
Alan Smyth, executive director of Saving Innocence, said it is unthinkable that, amid a surge in sex trafficking during the pandemic, the LAPD’s budget for fighting such crime should be reduced.
“Our hope,” he said, “would be that it would not even stay the same as it has been, but would even grow, because it’s way too critical to shrink away.”
Briggs said the testimony from victims, advocates and police officials represented a “call for action,” and he did not want “to simply rubber-stamp” the department’s report to the council but solicit reinvestment. His colleagues on the commission unanimously agreed.
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