If strip joints are a sight where Human Trafficking occurs and prostitution is suspected anyway, why aren’t the cops always under cover there? -- It is a question which pops out nearly all the time at presentations. Depending upon the time, I’ll usually answer with a “law enforcement economics” blurt. If we have time after the meeting, I will usually be cornered and asked to explain further. If there is no time after the meeting, it will come up in subsequent calls. I can’t speak to every law enforcement jurisdiction in the United States, but forms of this answer are fairly common, anecdotally speaking.
Police chiefs answer to some sort of political structure, be it a city council, a county government, a mayor, somebody. Those in positions of setting the police budget want to make sure that the money is being spent wisely (for example, would higher overtime pay be offset by an increase in the number of officers?). When making their decisions about how to allocate resources, all heads of law enforcement have to analyze the situation and predict the likely outcome. Do some stings/undercover operations fail? Of course. My guess is that their budget includes an informal “unsuccessful investigations” understanding. While many of us in the world look at the cost of failure, particularly in the business world, police heads must look just as hard at the likely outcome of success. And simply put, successful investigations do not provide the bang for the buck that we as voters and politicians as budget setters want for our tax money. I am not at all implying that our law enforcement officers ignore crimes. Quite the contrary, I think most are very good and are more than willing to arrest slavers. But, at this time in the fight, they are better able to predict the successful outcome of drug stings and money laundering stings than with slaves. Why do I think that?
Let’s make up a business. We’ll call it Fleshies and pretend that it is a strip club / sports bar / great place for men to hang out. Once inside, patrons might become aware of other non-marketed “services.” Some of these services may even be offered without the knowledge or consent of the owner. Word gets around that Fleshies sells sex for money. Police hear the rumors and decide to investigate the allegations. During the course of their investigations, there comes a point where the allegations seem probable. What should they do? Those of us on the outside would say “Fight prostitution! FIght sex slavery!” But the local police chief remembers the history of the force. Maybe it was a predecessor. Maybe it was a campaign joke in a prior elections. But at some point in the collective or individual memory, and undercover sting did not get the result they were looking for. Here’s what happened . . .
Undercover officers were used to try and locate the criminals and their activities within Fleshies. After a certain number of hours worked (how much overtime?) with partners and other observing officers outside the premises (again, how much overtime?), the undercover agent finally is able to solicit sex for money (prostitution). Bear in mind, the girls (and boys) are trained by their pimps, slaves, and employers how to spot a cop. So finding a girl willing to trade sex for money is way more difficult than you or I might think. But our officer was good. The prostitute clearly offers sex to the undercover officer for a clearly stated price. His bug catches the prostitute’s offer on disc/tape/mp3 clearly on the equipment outside. So he calls for backup (or backup hears the commission of the crime and comes bursting in). Everybody is rounded up and carted down to the station for booking.
Before the alleged prostitutes are even entered into the system, the defense attorney is there. He takes the arresting officer/s and asks “Did you witness this defendant offer sex in exchange for money?” The officers are truthful and state “no” about every person arrested except the one who unfortunate lady who did. The lawyer, who is often paid by the owner of Fleshies to represent her, tells our unfortunate lady he will negotiate a plea for her. She will plead guilty. The owner will cover the fines and lawyer fees and add it to the totals she owes. The upshot? For however many hours spent by however many officers and for whatever was spent on the surveillance equipment, the police get a prostitution plea deal. Do the math in your head. If it takes a couple months to get admitted to the special rooms, how many officer hours have been spent? How long has the equipment been used to try and get that recording? And for what? A prostitution case! In many jurisdictions, this might be treated as a misdemeanor offense, especially if she is young and this is her first arrest. Add to that the public sentiment that prostitution is a victimless crime, and we can begin to see why police chiefs won’t specifically target such businesses unless there are other crimes such as money laundering, drug sales, and other “glamorous” offenses for which they can generate good publicity and public goodwill about their budget. Given the likely outcome of a successful prosecution sting, are law enforcement decision makers acting wisely and as good stewards of our tax dollars when they pursue such cases? Or, would we as the general public rather see them get the dangerous people, the drunk drivers, the pedophiles, the drug dealers, and the murderers off our streets?
One last question, a sort of Hail Mary, may have popped into your head as you read this brief answer: What about the Feds? If Human Trafficking is a federal offense, can’t they do anything about it? In essence, it comes down to the fact that we are all presumed innocent under the law. Strip joints like our imaginary business Fleshies, by and large, are subject to the local laws and ordinances. For the feds to raid such a business, there must be probable cause. You and I might suspect that the girls are underage. We might suspect that they are not being paid. We might even suspect that an owner is keeping them hooked on drugs and alcohol to make them pliable. But unless there is a complaining witness or some other corroborating evidence offering proof, the hands of the feds are tied. And make no mistake, the bad guys know the rules. They will often have forged documents in their offices that were presented by the “dancer” satisfying the requirement that they not employ underage dancers. Their defense will be “hey, she told us she was old enough. See.”
What to do? Truthfully, there is not a lot that the faithful can do in the face of such practices. Some communities have started documenting in various ways the activities of such establishments. Perhaps such efforts will one day result in a RICO prosecution. One thing I try and encourage the faithful to do is to pray. Pray that those things hidden are brought to light. Pray that the girls being victimized are given the strength and grace and protection to be the complaining witness needed by law enforcement and prosecutors. And pray that the Holy Spirit guides the community of faith in its response. The truth is that this scenario plays itself out in any number of different jurisdictions around the country every day. What might work in Texas might fail in Washington. What works in Florida might fail California. What is successful in Iowa might flop gloriously in Maine. All we can do is continue to tell the stories of successes and failures, and of those practices happening right under our noses, and tell the story of the saving God who refused to allow us to be treated like chattel and redeemed us from our own bondage. Perhaps, through faithful obedience and faithful Gospel telling, we can help reshape a world in which even the possibility of enslavement is so revolting that such establishments cannot survive.