The need to focus investigations on cases of suspected human trafficking was one of the key reasons for the reorganization of the San Francisco Police Department’s Special Victims Unit starting this week, the captain in charge of the new office said.
The move places three full-time human trafficking investigators, including the police department’s acknowledged expert, in the same office space as more than 40 colleagues working in disparate areas such as sex crimes, domestic violence and financial crimes. Until now, no investigator worked full time on trafficking cases.
In anticipation of possible future funding requiring close collaboration with federal law enforcement agencies, Cpt. Antonio Parra, who leads the Special Victims Unit, said he was planning to meet this week with the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He will also consult with the nonprofit group Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, which counsels trafficking victims.
Last week the department finished moving smaller units from around the city into a newly consolidated Special Victims Unit on the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street, where the police plan to take a new coordinated approach.
“The human trafficking issue could come to light in the middle of a child abuse investigation, or in the middle of a domestic violence investigation, or in the middle of a financial crimes investigation of fraud,” Parra said. “The initial investigation may begin in one of the other disciplines.”
Human trafficking has been a stated priority of the police department at least since it launched a crackdown on massage parlors, called Operation Gilded Cage, in 2005. In 2010, then-District Attorney Kamala Harris and then-Mayor Gavin Newsom threw their support behind the creation of the San Francisco Coalition Against Human Trafficking. The federal government has also put millions of dollars into investigating trafficking cases, the numbers of which vary widely but all range in the tens of thousands of victims a year nationwide.
Until now, human trafficking investigations were run out of the Vice Crimes Unit, where officers had to divide their time among investigations of narcotics, gambling and prostitution.
Sgt. Arlin Vanderbilt worked quarter-time in the Vice Crimes Unit investigating human trafficking for a year and a half. Now he will put his eight years of experience as a trafficking investigator into a full-time position pursuing cases, working with federal law enforcement agencies and training fellow investigators. He will consult on the unit’s daily casework and look for instances of trafficking that might initially go unidentified. He will be joined by Brian Peagler of the Gang Task Force and Anthony Flores, a domestic violence investigator.
Officers throughout the police department receive as little as half an hour of training in detection of human trafficking every two years. Special Victims Unit investigators have received more training, and that will increase under the new plan. Some formal training will take place through the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. The Special Victims Unit will look at best practices from other local law enforcement agencies, federal agencies and nonprofit organizations. Federal law agencies such as Homeland Security Investigations have significantly more experience and resources for investigating trafficking.
Parra said meetings planned for this week with federal law enforcement will help the police “get a better perspective and idea of human trafficking as a whole — each of our roles individually and our roles together — pursuing those who take advantage of this, or victimize these individuals.”
Sanctuary policy at issue
One past impediment to robust investigations of suspected human trafficking has been the long-standing jurisdictional dispute with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency over San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” policy, which for more than a decade prohibited the police from reporting initial arrests of undocumented immigrants to federal officials. Coordination has increased in recent years. The police department conducted two joint investigations in the last year with the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations.
Homeland Security Investigations is the investigative division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is a separate entity from the Enforcement and Removal division, the division responsible for deportations. Special Agent Jennifer Alderete, who works with local law enforcement in the Bay Area on human trafficking cases, said Homeland Security Investigations is focused on supporting victims and catching traffickers, not turning over victims to Enforcement and Removal. In her nine years as a federal investigator she has never turned over a victim for deportation, she said.
Parra said the focus of the Special Victims Unit is on helping victims, not treating them as criminals.
“Were not coming in with the eye to deport people or to violate their rights in any way,” he said. “We want to look at it as earning their trust to step forward to giving us the information of those who are taking advantage of them. Because not all of this crime, especially with the laborers, is reported. We are going to have to find ways of earning their trust to get them to report those types of crime in those specific communities.” Any investigations conducted in collaboration with federal law enforcement agencies will comply with the city’s sanctuary policy, he added.
Attention to labor trafficking
Collaboration with federal agencies will be especially important to investigating labor trafficking cases, an area in which the police department has not made much progress. The department’s focus to date has been on sex trafficking.
As of mid-September, Victor Hwang, the assistant district attorney tasked with prosecuting labor trafficking cases, had not received any referrals from the police in the last year. “We don’t have any active referrals or prosecutions at this time,” he said.
According to Parra, close collaboration with federal law enforcement will be essential to pursuing all types of human trafficking cases. Besides their significant experience, federal law enforcement has a better understanding of how to build cases that meet higher standards of proof required under current human trafficking laws. In local jurisdictions it is common for traffickers to be charged with pimping and pandering, permit or labor law violations, instead of the more recently defined trafficking crimes.
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Traducción al españolPictured above: Lili Samad, a survivor of international labor trafficking, holds her three-year-old daughter. Photo…