Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Turning off the Internet pimp engines

Post by Brian O'Neill on April 1, 2012 at 9:49 am with 20 Comments »
April 1, 2012 9:51 am

Last Thursday, with a flourish of her pen, Governor Gregoire finally confronted the malignant growth of sex trafficking. It’s about time.

Courtesy of teensagainsthumantrafficking.blogspot

Most notably, the Governor’s signature places culpability on the Internet companies that have been unwilling to eradicate the presence of human trafficking from their sites (Trib 3/29).

It has been at least three years since this crime has become a repititive topic of conversation at the regional gang meetings I attend. Since then I have been briefed on numerous prostitution investigations involving young girls, most of whom where under the age of 18, and the gang members who force them into the role. The girls are often runaways who are befriended by young men with ready access to cash. Over time the girls reported that their boyfriends began threatening, hitting and sexually assaulting them, all in an effort to lower their self-esteem. Thus, their boyfriends became their pimps.

I have seen this process in action. A couple of years ago I watched a local gang member exit a halfway house for registered sex offenders. He was closely escorting two scantily clad girls who could have been no more than sixteen. As disturbing as that encounter was, the case became just one more stat in the prosecutor’s sex trafficking case against just this particular gang. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more where that came from.

Over time I also learned that, despite their individual rivalries, the gangs involved in sex trafficking were consistent in one aspect: They all used Internet websites, such as Craigslist.org, Google and Backpage.com, for their (free) advertising. At the time it was a secret known only to pimps, johns and cops. Due to exhaustive efforts by rights groups, intensive media scrutiny, and legislative work in Olympia, the issue is now out in the open where it should be.

For now, let’s leave aside the matter of adult prostitution. Yes, it is still a crime in most of the U.S., but it is also true that most police departments spend little time enforcing adult prostitution, especially given current budgetary constraints. Note the repitition of the term, “adult.”

Juvenile prostitution is a whole different ball game. A young girl’s journey into this sordid life begins with coercion, as I mentioned. It is then enforced by privations of food and illicit drugs (an addiction which is sometimes forced on them). The term sex slavery is an apt one for the problems in our state and our country. If nothing else, we have lost the moral authority to point fingers at third world countries where the sex trade also flourishes.

The re-emergence of sex trafficking in the U.S. is a trend linked to both legitimate and criminal enterprise. The latter, especially criminal street gangs, have found that promoting prostitution is a lucrative business with less risk of incarceration and property seizure as their primary enterprise, selling drugs. The emergence of the Internet, with its local and global reach, has created a means of advertising, pricing, scheduling and recruiting that would has made sex trafficking such a successful phenomenon. Advertising technology used by corporations such as Google and Craigslist.org has enabled this industry to stay ahead of law enforcement, while making huge profits (which ironically are used to lobby against legal reform). Backpage.com, a lesser known online ad forum, has increasingly been mentioned as the source for juvenile prostitutes.

The new state law – which requires companies to confirm the age of the individuals involved in online ads – has finally addressed this problem. While pimps are the true bad guys in this story, wealthy Internet companies bear a significant share of the responsibility when they fail to ensure that juveniles aren’t being sold as sex slaves on their websites.

It will be interesting to see how Backpage.com and others react to these new constraints. Will they fire up their legal teams, rush to file paperwork and vilify the government’s attempt to, once again, restrict freedom? Or will they quietly put their ill-gotten profits in their already fattened wallets and realize that they need to take a stand against the victimization of young girls and boys?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Leave a comment Comments → 20
  1. reformedliberal says:

    This entire thing is an untruth, inside a lie, wrapped in a propaganda campaign.

    But thanks for not repeating the bogus statistics. At least I can give you credit for not being immune to embarrassment.

  2. Brian O'Neill says:

    Thanks for your comment, RL, but I can’t credit your point of view when it lacks everything but invective. While the world awaits your argument I will stick to my own personal experiences investigating these cases.

  3. reformedliberal says:

    And thank you, Mr. O’Neill, for your restrained response. I’ll give you a little more to chew on.

    I’d say a good place to start is here:
    “Yes, it is still a crime in most of the U.S., but it is also true that most police departments spend little time enforcing adult prostitution, especially given current budgetary constraints.”

    The crux here is “budgetary constraints”. In more ways than one.

    First, I invite you to fire up the way-back machine and pull up some media reports of vice stings prior to, oh say, 2007 or so. Not to read the reports so much as to take note of the reader commentary. What you will find is citizen after citizen expressing his (or her) frustration that police are spending their time and money going after activity between consenting adults that affects no one besides those involved.

    Now go find some more recent reports, involving underage prostitutes. Check the comments. You will find them ranging somewhere between “hang ‘em high” and “these people are scum of the earth.”

    I offer that this contrast is not lost on law enforcement officials. At some point, just a few years ago, a light bulb lit up and the way forward became clear. The way around these budgetary constraints is to make it “For the children!™”

    Suddenly, there seems to be ample funding for vice stings, much of it passed through from the federal government (where cost-effectiveness is seldom an issue), so long as the emphasis is, at least nominally, on rescuing underage girls.

    This is a worthy goal, as underage prostitution is a real problem. It would be easy enough to chalk this all up to an appropriate re-tuning of societal objectives, IF the proponents of the plan were telling the truth. But unfortunately, quite a number of public officials, advocacy groups, and the media, have been caught lying about the proportions of the problem.

    They have also either implemented, or agitated for, “solutions” that actually make it more difficult to rescue child prostitutes.

    Now, why would that be? Could it be that the stated goals and the actual, true objectives don’t quite line up?

    Back to you, Brian.

  4. Brian O'Neill says:

    You have lost me, RF. Is it possible you are suggesting that law enforcement is purposefully inflating this plague in order to inflate our budget? For what purpose? If you are making a case that there are nefarious schemes buried somewhere in the fight against juvenile prostitution then, at least in my opinion, you have failed.

    Twenty years ago I worked prostitution sting operations on a routine basis because community members were adamant that this was a major concern. Those operations dropped off significantly since that time. But recent operations – including federal investigations that target juveniles being transported around the country as sex slaves – have not been directly targeting prostitutes, either adult or juvenile. Instead, these have been pointed straight at the pimps who are lining their wallets by advertising stolen innocence on Backpage.com.

    From the inside, I see no nefarious schemes. From the outside, you present no evidence to support your conjecture.

  5. reformedliberal says:

    I’m suggesting that law enforcement – along with a cadre of willing accomplices – is inflating the problem in order to get funding, and political cover, to continue targeting adult vice.

    Yes, there is a new emphasis on juveniles. And don’t get me wrong, I think that is important work. But it’s far, far from being the full story.

  6. Brian O'Neill says:

    Even if that were true – and I see no evidence to suggest it is – then I would suggest that your outrage is still misplaced. ANY efforts in that direction are long, long overdue.

  7. lovethemountains says:

    It seems that part of RL’s argument is that the participants are only hurting themselves and not worth the expenditure of public funds. Unfortunately, RL apparently dismisses the cost to taxpayers in the ruined lives of these participants. Believe me, looking and dealing with those participants is not pretty.

  8. The exploitations of minors in a number of ways is a horrid
    crime. However we’re whittling away at the Internet more and
    more. The Arab sprung that went no where wouldn’t have happened
    no way without free communication. Many foreign governments are
    drooling at the opportunity to cut and dice the Internet to
    pieces. Does getting at minor prostitution warrant another
    blow to perhaps the last free speech out there? Ah, it’s
    commercialized to the hilt anyway.

  9. NewDragon says:

    Legalize prostitution and have brothels where the women can be checked for age and disease. This will end a lot of the problems.

  10. Chippert says:

    One would have thought that Prohibition would have taught America a lesson… Societies have been fighting prostitution as long as history has been recorded and all efforts have failed miserably. In most cases, prostitution is simply an issue of morality and we have proven over and over that you just cannot successfully legislate morality! The first step to conquer this problem is to legalize and remove the stigma from prostitution. Then you can regulate it for public health reasons and tax it. Once you get that hurdle out of the way, you can more successfully attack the human-trafficking and underage crimes associated with it. Until then, all efforts are merely tilting at windmills.

  11. BlaineCGarver says:

    LOL, Brian….Making the the media responsble for confirming the age? This is horrible law. The pimps bear no responsibility??

  12. NotPoliticallyCorrect says:

    I would like to know, how they plan on confirming the ages of these kids?

    So, if I post here and tell you I am 21, would that be good enough?

  13. Brian O'Neill says:

    For purposes of clarification, neither my column nor the law fails to hold pimps responsible for their crime. The RCW known as Promoting prostitution is applicable towards pimps, not the advertising medium. It is now a felony carrying a heavy amount of time when the victim is a juvenile.

    Online advertisers are only responsible for how they make their money. Their role in this trade is no different than the owner of a tavern. In the same way the tavern owner is responsible to check the ages of the people whom he serves, an advertiser is now responsible to ensure that minors are not being sold on their online sex forum. Like a liquor establishment, the online company will have violated the law when they fail to police their own business.

    If you fail to see the connection then I would suggest you consider explaining your point of view to the distraught parents of runaways that are right now being sold on backpage.com. Wake up.

  14. NotPoliticallyCorrect says:

    How many juveniles stil acquire alcohol? Quite a few!!!! How are law enforcement personnel going to follow up on the advertisers? Find a kid mixed up in the mess (IF they are willing and or NOT terrifed), then maybe find out there is a link to an advertiser. Of course comes the difficult part, proving that advertiser knew? Are they going to be required to come in for a face to face interview?

    Why not just place a law prohibiting escort/prostitution and so on online? If you are going to go this far with age of these kids, why not go all the way?

    If you think there is a disconnect with asking a question in an internet world. There is a difference between advertising online and walking into a liquor store with valid ID. Maybe you should consider hanging up your “Blue Byline Post” and move on.

    If you think I am being insensitive to those kids and their parents guess again!!!! I know being a father and grandfather, something like this can happen in the blink of an eye. I do wish for these kids to be taken out of this hell hole and returned home to their families. Then of course to see those responsible dealt with and maybe put in a third world type prison.

  15. lovethemountains says:

    NotPoliticallyCorrect, one of the ways to achieve what you speak of in your last paragraph is to clamp down hard on the internet pimps such as backpage.com. The operators of such sites know fully well they are facilitating underage prostitution. This is not solely a law enforcement problem. If society had enough sense and guts they would realize what part of the prostitution of juveniles backpage.com, et al, play in this and send them a message by not patronizing the site until they choose not to advertise and pimp these kids. Once they voluntarily clean up their act and accept only legitimate and non-harmful ads they would no doubt see their business increase. Note that I say “voluntarly.” I am not for censorship. Society has great power in correcting wrongs without government censorship.

  16. NotPoliticallyCorrect says:

    lovethemountains, well said. I don’t disagree with the clamping down on the pimps and these websites. I am curious how they are going to prove the age part. Do you think backpage will have face to face interviews to check the ages? As an example the news tribune accounts, which we all created here. They ask if you are 13 years of age or older, check the box and you are done signing up. No proof needed.

  17. BlaineCGarver says:

    Wake up?? Brian, please explain how publishers will do this thing? Even if the girl comes in, don’t you suppose that Straw Chicks will be used?? It’s ashame that you can’t harrass known pimps/operators and make it too expensive to do business. You ain’t going to suppress vice messing with a newspaper (even TNT has disclaimers about verifying ads and how they are not responsible for content.)

  18. Brian O'Neill says:

    The number of new conspiracy cases involving pimps makes this a simple matter, Blaine. In the interview process it should be fairly simple to determine whether those responsible for placing the online ads involving juveniles were required to submit the proof needed under the new law. If the Internet company failed to meet its obligation then the case is all but wrapped up. Other cases involving similar methods are employed daily to great effect. You make a few cases like this, levy major fines or hold individuals or corporations criminally accountable and the results will be dramatic.

    It’s a pretty simple investigation. And as I said in the column, this is not a discussion about prostitution in general; the issue of juvenile prostitution is a sex crime worthy of everyone’s attention.

  19. NotPoliticallyCorrect says:

    Where are these internet companies based? If the internet company is based out of another state or country, how will the state of washington go after them?

    Well Brian, I hope this is as simple as you make it out to be. I am hoping to read about the dramatic changes in the next 6 to 12 months. Especially with the trafficking problem in western washington.

  20. Brian O'Neill says:

    Handling out of state offenders is one of the reasons we have an Attorney General’s Office. I hope for dramatic changes as well, but if even one young person is rescued from sex slavery it will have been worthwhile.

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