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What should Long Beach police have done when one of their own was arrested in a prostitution sting?

What should Long Beach police have done when one of their own was arrested in a prostitution sting?

Like many other law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California, Long Beach police have turned their attention to eliminating the scourge of human trafficking in recent years.

The department formed a task force and vowed to arrest people who profited from and exploited the sex trade. At one point, police noted that their efforts had led to more trafficking prosecutions than any other law enforcement agency in Los Angeles County, and the City Council has supported state legislation aimed at stiffening penalties against traffickers.

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But as they focused attention on rescuing women from traffickers, Long Beach police officials have also been forced to wrestle with a problem close to home: how to respond when one of their own officers was accused of trying to exploit the illicit sex trade the department wants to stamp out.

Long Beach police declined to discuss what discipline, if any, the agency took against Officer William Scott Holder after he was arrested last year in an undercover prostitution sting in Corona. The agency cited state law that makes police discipline confidential.

A spokesman confirmed Holder remains employed by the department and had been reassigned from the SWAT team, but he would not say if that reassignment was a result of the arrest and prosecution.

Holder's case comes at a time when law enforcement agencies in Southern California and throughout the country are reshaping the way they view prostitution and trying to win the trust of women engaged in the sex trade by treating them as victims rather than potential suspects. But those efforts can be blunted when officers are accused of soliciting prostitutes.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which has taken an aggressive approach against human trafficking, is grappling with a similar issue. Deputy Raymond Edward Bernasconi, 55, was charged with solicitation after he made arrangements to meet with a woman he believed to be a prostitute on Oct. 12, prosecutors said. Bernasconi found himself caught in an undercover sting launched by his own agency and is now suspended without pay, according to Capt. Jeff Scroggin, an agency spokesman.

If convicted, Bernasconi could be fired, according to Scroggin.

Some law enforcement agencies have taken a hard line against officers accused of solicitation.

Earlier this year, a Boynton Beach, Fla., department fired a police officer caught in an undercover prostitution sting. The police chief in the Florida city of Miami Gardens was removed last year from his position after he responded to a prostitution ad on the website Backpage.com that was part of an undercover law enforcement sting.

And last year, then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. issued a special warning to Justice Department employees against soliciting prostitutes, saying such an action “undermines the department’s efforts to eradicate the scourge of human trafficking.” His memo was issued a month after a scathing inspector general’s report alleged that Drug Enforcement Administration agents had attended “sex parties” with prostitutes hired by drug cartels. Agents who admitted attending the parties received suspensions of two to 10 days.

Interactions between police officers and trafficking victims have come under intense scrutiny in California in recent months, after a teenage trafficking victim accused dozens of police officers in Oakland and throughout the Bay Area of having sex with her. Some of the sex acts allegedly occurred while the girl was underage, and some of the officers have been accused of leaking her information on police raids in exchange for sex acts.

At least eight police officers face criminal charges in that case, some for sexual contact with a minor, and several others have been fired.

In Long Beach, the decision to allow the arrested officer to keep his job has drawn questions from some in the city about whether Holder's continued employment is at odds with the department's public crackdown on trafficking.

"In light of their making such a big deal of it, and they're devoting such huge resources to it, and then one of their own is engaged in victimizing these people, that's serious stuff," said Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles police commander who now lives in Long Beach and often speaks out on local law enforcement issues. "Their action against their own officer shows just how serious they are taking it."

Court records show that Holder, 46, was arrested on July 29, 2015. He had been texting with an undercover police officer whom he believed to be a female sex worker, Corona police said. Officers found both the cell phone he used to arrange the encounter and the cash he had agreed to pay for sex when they searched him after he appeared for the rendezvous, police said.

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Holder was charged with a misdemeanor count of soliciting a prostitute. Months later, he pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace, a lesser misdemeanor, and was sentenced to three years' probation and 30 days in a work-release program, court records show.

Holder and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Steve James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Assn., referred to Holder as a "well-respected" officer and scoffed at the idea that his misconduct would have any effect on the department's ability to relate with trafficking victims. He declined to say what discipline Holder received but said the officer deserved to keep his job.

"I think the discipline that he received was more than probably 99% of other Americans would receive for the same transgression," James said.

Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said Holder's case highlights the problem of secret disciplinary records. Without knowing how, or if, Holder was punished, Long Beach residents cannot properly analyze how their department holds its own accountable.

"When off-duty officers violate the very laws they enforce on duty, that raises serious integrity questions," he said. "The real problem here is not being able to see how Long Beach handled the matter."

Long Beach Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce, who had not been informed of the matter until she was contacted by a Times reporter, said she was concerned that news of Holder's arrest might impact the department's relationship with victims of trafficking and other crimes.

"Our goal is supposed to be to build relationships between our Police Department, the residents, the victims, people that we need to trust our police to be able to share info and catch people that are criminals," she said. "This narrative isn't helpful."

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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