Of the many mistakes I’ve made in my police career, one looms large.
I recall driving my patrol car through downtown Auburn when three people crossing the street caught my eye. Two were young girls, about 16, wearing clothing best described as skimpy on what was a crisp afternoon; the third was a young man in his early 20’s. They got into an old Chevy as I drove past, and I never saw them again.
Two things occurred to me in the following order. First, a part of my brain ran the image through a racial profiling filter and decided there was nothing to see. That decision kept my foot on the gas.
Second, the instinctual part of my brain – the “cop voice” – spoke up. It reminded me that 1) the young male had been wearing a blue bandana and other telltale gang clothing; 2) the apartment building on the side of the street from which they had crossed was mostly populated by registered sex offenders; 3) I had recently received a lengthy briefing on the role of criminal street gangs in human trafficking.
Of course, by the time I realized this and spun a quick U-turn, their car was gone.
Regardless of my mistake, sex trafficking continues to blight our society. It is a cash business and, with the infinite reach of the Internet, easily marketable. There is a constant stream of new products – young girls and women, sometimes immigrants and often runaways. Also, until recently, there was little criminal recourse for the soulless thugs who profited from the perverted combination of lust and innocence.
A recent TNT story lifted from The Miami Herald (1/19) illustrates how entrenched this problem has become, even within the “legitimate” business of strip clubs.
The article describes how a 13-year-old girl wound up as a stripper in Miami Beach’s only all-nude strip club. Whether this oversight by management was intententional or accidental, it might be said that the girl, who went by the stage name of Peaches, had found a better place on stage. Prior to working at the club, she had allegedly been turning tricks for three adult male pimps.
The vulnerability of these girls cannot be overstated. Because of their age and immaturity, they are easy prey for the crafty and sleazy men who often force them into a life of sexual servitude. Much as in domestic violence situations, these victims will often lie to protect the very criminals who exploit them. Self esteem, as one can imagine, is in short supply.
I have little doubt the girls I passed in my patrol car would have been similarly uncooperative, had I correctly chosen to contact them. But I did not, and thus I will never know the story of how they came to be there on that chilly day.
Young girls like them, caught up in the tangled web of prostitution, arrive at this cruel lifestyle for many reasons – poor judgment and vulnerability, among other factors. But their continued presence is due to our perception of them as somehow expendable.
Victims of sex trafficking do not deserve to be treated like society’s castoffs, their voices muted by oppressive criminals and ignored by mainstream society.
It is well past time that their stories were heard.