….While the last few decades have seen an increase in human trafficking, women at all three of the anti-trafficking groups I spoke with across California agreed: nothing compares with the stunning rise in trafficking they’ve witnessed in recent months. Powell, formerly a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Vice Division, knows the city’s streets intimately. Over the last six months, the number of prostitutes has doubled, she says. “On Figueroa, between 68th and 75th, in an hour, you might see about 30 girls out there. Now, you can see 60 to 65 girls in an hour.”
What shifted? The answer, the anti-trafficking advocates told me, is Senate Bill 357. Signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in July, the measure decriminalized loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution. The bill did not officially take effect until January 1 of this year; but, from the moment it became law back in July, these women say, the on-the-ground reality changed. “The minute the governor signed it, you started seeing an uptick on the streets,” Powell said. “And on social media, the pimps were saying: ‘You better get out there and work because the streets are ours.’”
The pimps were right: police stopped making arrests for crimes that would no longer be charged. The anti-loitering statute had provided the grounds for officers to question women and children whom they suspected might be trapped in a prostitution ring. “As a police officer, you need probable cause to stop and investigate,” Powell explained. “So if I have a law that says you can’t loiter in this area, with pasties and a G-string, flagging down cars, I could stop you for that because you’re loitering. But if I just say I’m stopping you because you look kind of young, that’s a little weak. So, it takes away a tool.” Without the statute, police hands were suddenly tied. Henceforth, questioning the girls—and potentially provoking a violent confrontation with pimps—came to seem a Pyrrhic gamble, one that California’s police officers would now avoid.
Prostitution remains illegal in California. But police have lost significant ground in the effort to contain it, women at anti-trafficking nonprofits in the Bay Area, San Diego, and Los Angeles all emphasized. “The only time they have the right to engage and investigate is if they hear the transaction going on between the buyer and the exploited person,” said Russell, who works closely with the Oakland Police Department. “Which means it would have to be a sting operation where there’s an undercover officer posing as an exploitive person who can actually hear the transaction. Any other scenarios would not be grounds for the police to get involved.”
Sergeant Marcos Campos of the Oakland Police Department told me that his force rescued 24 underage girls from the streets in 2021. But in 2022, that number dropped to 14—most from before the law was signed. “Since, I believe, July, when we were officially told it passed, we have been directed by the district attorney’s office to not arrest for [statute] 653.22, which is loitering,” he said.
You might wonder, at this point, who actually benefits from SB 357. Sergeant Campos wonders, too. Not the communities, he said, for whom a rise in trafficking brings more gun violence, which often attends prostitution. Not the sex workers, many of whom rely on police officers for help in escaping their pimps. “I think if anything, it probably helped the sex traffickers the most,” Campos said.
Why would anyone propose such a law? Why would the California State Legislature pass it? I asked the bill’s author, San Francisco–based state senator Scott Wiener. The answer he gave is the one that he supplies for so many of the bills he authors: it was necessary to advance the rights of LGBTQ people. “If you are standing on the sidewalk with high heels, and you wear your hair a certain way, and you wear tight clothing, an officer can say, ‘I think you’re loitering with the intent to commit prostitution’ and arrest you,” Wiener said. “That is not how we should be doing things in the United States of America — arresting people for how they look,” he continued. “And when you do that, not surprisingly, it’s only certain kinds of people who actually get arrested: it’s trans women. It’s black women. . . . It’s an inherently profiling law,” he said. “Randomly arresting a bunch of black trans women for how they look is not protecting potential victims of human trafficking.”
But were the police indeed “randomly arresting a bunch of black trans women”? The anti-trafficking advocates I spoke with dispute this. For starters, Wilson, Powell, and Russell (all of whom are African-American) say that biological women and girls — not transgender individuals — constitute the vast majority of those trafficked. Nearly every report on human trafficking by global human rights organizations confirms this observation….
Full story at City Journal