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Costa Mesa steps up effort to combat human trafficking

Costa Mesa Police Chief Rob Sharpnack speaks during a news conference Friday outside City Hall. Officials announced that the Costa Mesa Police Department has joined the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, an effort of law enforcement agencies, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and service providers.

Costa Mesa Police Chief Rob Sharpnack speaks during a news conference Friday outside City Hall. Officials announced that the Costa Mesa Police Department has joined the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, an effort of law enforcement agencies, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and service providers.

(Luke Money | Daily Pilot)

The Costa Mesa Police Department has joined a countywide task force aimed at combating human trafficking, pledging to dedicate police resources laser-focused on weeding out what the city’s top cop called “heinous and vile acts.”

The department’s move to officially sign on with the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force — a multi-dimensional effort made up of law enforcement agencies, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and service providers — was announced Friday during a press conference.

“Costa Mesa is here today to join the fight,” Mayor Steve Mensinger told the assembled crowd on the lawn in front of City Hall. “We are ground zero in the battle to protect young women from sexual slavery.”

Police Chief Rob Sharpnack said there has been a “significant increase in prostitution and trafficking-related activities” in Costa Mesa over the past year.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas speaks during an Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force press conference Friday at Costa Mesa City Hall. Behind him from left are Costa Mesa Mayor Steve Mensinger, Anaheim Police Deputy Chief Julian Harvey, Costa Mesa Police Chief Rob Sharpnack and Lita Mercado, director of victim assistance programs for Community Service Programs.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas speaks during an Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force press conference Friday at Costa Mesa City Hall. Behind him from left are Costa Mesa Mayor Steve Mensinger, Anaheim Police Deputy Chief Julian Harvey, Costa Mesa Police Chief Rob Sharpnack and Lita Mercado, director of victim assistance programs for Community Service Programs.
(Luke Money | Daily Pilot / Luke Money | Daily Pilot)

During the first four months of 2016, Costa Mesa police arrested 69 people on suspicion of prostitution or other vice-related crimes such as pimping, pandering and human trafficking, according to statistics provided by the city.

They made one such arrest in 2015, statistics show. Police officials in June attributed the increase to a new directive for the department’s special investigations unit.

The partnership with the task force, Sharpnack said, includes dedicating a full-time officer “to ensure a more comprehensive approach to sex trafficking.” Costa Mesa police will also be able to better coordinate with other law enforcement agencies on trafficking cases.

“We realized that, by ourselves, we are only scratching the surface and that many more similar incidents take place every day without detection,” Sharpnack said. “Therefore, we are motivated to participate with this task force to rescue the victims and bring justice to the individuals responsible for their pain and suffering.”

Officials also unveiled the task force’s annual Human Trafficking Victim Report during Friday’s press conference.

The report identified 225 human trafficking victims who had received some sort of service or assistance from the task force last year.

Since its inception in 2004, the task force has assisted more than 580 victims of sex and labor trafficking.

New to this year’s report is information on the origin of both the victims of human trafficking and those prosecuted for such crimes.

Data compiled between 2012 and 2015 show only 22% of Orange County trafficking victims originated in the county. Some came from as far away as the East Coast.

The same is true of perpetrators. Data from the Orange County District Attorney’s office show only about 20% of those prosecuted for trafficking-related crimes between 2012 and 2015 came from Orange County.

“We are faced with the reality that Orange County is a destination location,” said Lita Mercado, director of victim assistance programs for Community Service Programs, a task force partner. “Traffickers are bringing women and girls into this county because there is a demand base here.”

The addition of the Costa Mesa Police Department will help the task force better tackle the major trafficking corridors along Beach and Harbor boulevards, officials said.

Some Costa Mesa officials have regularly criticized local motels along Harbor and Newport boulevards for being hotspots of criminal activities, including human trafficking.

One recent trend the task force has identified is perpetrators becoming more violent, according to county District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

One victim was repeatedly whipped with a belt; another had a leg burned with a blowtorch. Others were raped.

The task force, he said, “is and will continue to be relentless in the pursuit of these perpetrators.”

“We’re combating modern-day slavery,” he said.

This year’s report also includes a number of testimonials from survivors of human trafficking. A common theme, Mercado said, is “not to be afraid to ask for help.”

“This fear to get help or shame to disclose what has been happening speaks to the difficulty in victim identification and victim services,” she said. “When a person is just as scared to seek help as they are to stay and suffer, often they will stay with the devil that they know.”

For more information on the task force, visit egovlink.com/ochumantrafficking.

luke.money@latimes.com

Twitter: @LukeMMoney

To read the article in Spanish, click here


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