OPD goes undercover to get young prostitutes off the street
on April 8, 2010
“There’s another one there,” the undercover cop says to me from the driver’s seat. He gestures up the street with a nod. Half a block ahead, I can see who he is talking about: a young woman crosses the street wearing tight jeans tucked into black leather knee-high boots with tall, spiky heels. Her black hair hangs in a braid pulled through the white sequined baseball cap covering her head. She wears a black tank top with thin straps, and she adjusts the small black purse on her shoulder while talking on her cell phone. If I saw her at the mall or the grocery store, I wouldn’t think twice. But this isn’t the mall. This is Oakland’s International Boulevard, otherwise known as “the track,” where young women, some of them minors, come to work as prostitutes.
We drive past the girl, and several voices crackle over the handheld radio in the cop’s lap. The girl is heading towards the corner of 17th Avenue and International Boulevard, towards the National Lodge, a somewhat rundown motel. The officer radios in her location and we drive up another block before turning around.
I’ve been allowed to tag along this afternoon with Officer Jim Saleda and the Oakland Police Department’s Child Exploitation Unit as it conducts an undercover operation. This particular operation is geared towards arresting the girls involved in prostitution, but the unit will sometimes hold operations using their own female officers to arrest “johns,” or men who pay for sex.
It’s the middle of the afternoon in the middle of an ordinary week, not a time when I expect there to be much demand for prostitutes. Yet the girl is the third Saleda has pointed out to me in the six minutes we’ve been on International. We had seen a blonde girl in a brown top three blocks earlier, and another girl in a white tank top and shorts just headed off of International. “The later it gets, closer to rush hour traffic, you wouldn’t believe the number of girls out here,” Saleda says.
Saleda has been a cop since 1993 and a member of the unit since 2002, with an 18-month break for what he wryly calls his “vacation”—as an Army reservist, Saleda served in Iraq as a cavalry scout from 2003-2005. As part of the undercover team, he is dressed in plain clothes: jeans and a black graphic t-shirt that doesn’t quite cover the tattoos etched into his forearms. His gray, spiky hair sticks out from beneath a black embroidered hat. The bill of the hat curves slightly, despite, he tells me, the fact that prostitutes and pimps he’s previously arrested say that the curved bill is an indicator that he’s a cop. Other indicators of cop status: being a white male, and wearing black boots or high-end tennis shoes. I glance down at Saleda’s feet on the pedals and recognize his tan combat boots, the kind worn by soldiers.
As we drive in our unmarked sedan, somewhere close by four other plainclothes officers are also circling in undercover vehicles. Like Saleda, they’re keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior: Girls dressed in a somewhat provocative manner, or who do not fit the local demographic—say, a white female with a confident stride walking through a mostly black or Latino neighborhood. “It’s a lot of body language and mannerism,” Saleda says; the way a girl moves says a lot about what she’s up to. There are other clues: “The shoes are a dead giveaway,” he says, referring to the uncomfortably high heels we’ve seen thus far. So are smiling, waving or nodding at cars, or simply wandering in an area known for prostitution. These signs are subtle, but Saleda says that after a while officers just sort of develop an eye for them, and that his unit never accidentally arrested someone who wasn’t involved in prostitution.
If an officer sees enough suspicious behavior, he will “set up” on the girl, Saleda says, and park the car to watch her for telltale actions, like if she’s staring into passing vehicles, trying to get the attention of passersby. An undercover cop might approach the young woman to see if she’ll solicit him for sex. If she does, or if the officer feels he’s collected enough other evidence, he’ll call in one of the several arrest teams—or uniformed officers in marked cars— that are also roving the area.
Saleda and his colleagues keep in continual radio contact, reporting their locations and observations. Now the voices on the radio report that other officers are trailing the girl in the white tank top, who has made her way to the National Lodge.
We park across the street from the motel where we have a view of the row of room doors. The girl in the white hat reappears briefly, walks to room 104, pulls out a key and goes inside. Within minutes a young man appears, knocks on the door, and goes inside.
Saleda puts down the radio, and I follow him to the small booth that serves as the motel’s front desk. With one eye on room 104, he rings the bell and a young woman appears. Saleda pulls his badge, which is hanging from a chain around his neck, from his shirt and shows it to the woman, asking to see the reservation info for the room. She glances at the badge before printing the page, and slides it underneath the glass window.
Studying the printout, Saleda moves to the other side of the office, out of view of 104, and uses his radio to call in the name on the receipt. As we stand there, a shiny black Pontiac pulls into the parking lot. The driver is a white man in his early thirties wearing a pressed button-down shirt; he looks polished and out of place. He sees the two of us standing alongside the office—Saleda still talking on the handheld radio—and almost immediately drives away. “That was probably a john,” Saleda says, watching him go.
Saleda gets the word on the background check on the name used to rent room 104: it’s clean, no record. We go back to the car and start to drive again.
Oakland is notorious for prostitution. In 2009, the Child Exploitation Unit made a total of 640 arrests—mostly for solicitation, or offering sex for money—and 71 of the people arrested were minors. Many of those arrests occurred through operations such as this one. According to the unit’s commander, Lieutenant Kevin Wiley, the number of arrests is directly tied to the number of officers assigned to the unit: the more manpower, the more arrests. However, arresting girls on the street is considered merely the tip of the iceberg. Police know many more people are involved with prostitution.
According to the 2009 National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, the average age of entry into prostitution and pornography in the United States is 12 to 14 years old. Although there are exceptions, the majority of girls who get involved with prostitution are runaways, or have been in foster care or group homes, and very often are past victims of chronic physical or sexual abuse. Many girls initially become involved because they believe that their pimp is their boyfriend; pimps may prey on their need for affection, trapping the girls in a cycle of intimacy and violence that becomes difficult to escape.
As Saleda and I leave the hotel, the chatter on the radio continues, with voices calling in locations, movements. One team announces, “We’ve got it.” Up ahead I can see a marked police car. “There’s the arrest,” Saleda says. Sure enough, one police officer is handcuffing a girl who looks to be about seventeen, while the other cop is speaking to her and taking notes.
I guess I had expected to see more girls in neon pink spandex mini skirts, wearing knee-high boots and displaying too much cleavage. But this girl looks normal to me. If there wasn’t a slight chill in the air, her miniscule jean shorts, white tank top and flat pair of silver-strapped sandals wouldn’t seem terribly out of place. I mention this to Saleda in the driver’s seat.
“Look at her face,” Saleda says, nodding towards the girl. Beneath her heavily-lined eyes, a huge red welt covers her pale cheek.
“The pimp beat her ass,” Saleda says, his tone angry. He steps on the gas, and we circle back to International. “But she loves him,” he says, “That’s why it’s so hard to get to these girls—they’re so abused by everybody in their life, any attention they get from the pimp they think is good attention.”
A few minutes later, one of the other officers on the radio reports the girl in the white hat is on the move again. It’s been less than fifteen minutes since we saw her enter room 104. Now she’s back on the street, and a cop has set up on her.
The arrest teams head in the direction of the National Lodge, and so do we. We arrive moments later as the girl is arrested, and five or six police cars, mostly unmarked, crowd the parking lot. She stands with her back to me, talking to a female police officer in plainclothes. A uniformed officer has a laptop out and is searching for the girl’s history in the OPD’s records. When she turns to sit inside the car, her expression seems stoic, perhaps annoyed. I wonder if this is part of the routine for her, the irritating occupational hazard of occasionally getting arrested.
The police officers ask permission to search the room, hoping to glean some information about her pimp, and the girl gives them her key. I follow Saleda and several uniformed officers into the room, which looks and smells like any cheap hotel: dingy, dimly lit, stagnant. Perched on the bedside table is a laptop; its wallpaper image is of a provocatively-posed young woman wearing nothing but a thong. Beside the laptop, there’s a condom.
Wearing blue latex gloves, the police officers dig through several duffel bags which mostly contain clothing, both men and women’s—they tell me this indicates that the girl has been living with her pimp here in the hotel room. The room is stocked as if they’d intended to stay for a while: cookware, an Xbox, and the laptop, presumably used to solicit clients over the Internet. “She’s got a decent setup,” says Sergeant Robert Chan, who is supervising the undercover operation. “She’s pretty self-contained.”
Saleda and Chan are grudgingly impressed with the girl’s ingenuity: Her cell phone contacts— that is, her clientele—are labeled with names like “blue car” and “black car.” Because she’s recorded these obscure details, rather than clients’ names, the cops learn very little that is useful. And when they ask her questions about her pimp, she denies that she has one.
“That’s what they all say,” Saleda later tells me—many of the girls will lie, saying they work independently. Whether out of love or fear or both, “Don’t give up your pimp” is the number one rule, he said.
He reminds me of the welt on the cheek of the girl we’d seen arrested earlier: “If they give up their pimp, the minimum of what’s going to happen to them… well, you saw it on that girl’s face back there.”
The operation continues along International, and the police arrest girl after girl. Although the offenses for which they are being picked up—solicitation or loitering with the intent of prostitution—are misdemeanors, and the girls could potentially be let off with a simple citation, the officers prefer to make arrests, and gather up as many girls as they have room for in the squad cars.
By arresting the girls, Saleda says, the police can remove them from their environment, give them time away from the influence of their pimps, and attempt to offer them access to support services such as counseling. Police also use the opportunity to question the girls for useful information. “Otherwise, they’d just go right back to work,” Saleda says; when they’re under arrest, he says, “They’re going to get a time out.”
Saleda says officers also hope that the younger girls are still new enough to the game that they can be convinced that their pimps are not actually their boyfriends, but someone who is exploiting them, and be willing to help police build a case against him. “If we can put her pimp away, that’s ten more girls somewhere down the line that don’t have to be victimized,” Saleda says. He admits some of the pimps are really smart, to the point of creating business plans—he’s seen the notes. “These guys are true parasites,” he says.
Only two hours after the operation began, the arrest teams are “down”—that means the squad cars are full of arrestees—and they take the group they’ve arrested to a “staging area,” a secluded outdoor space in a commercial area that acts as a sort of waiting room for the girls. They’ll wait here until the operation is over and they are brought to police headquarters downtown. The girls are loaded into a passenger van to wait while the police screen out the juveniles from the older women, which is required by law.
Also waiting at the staging area are several advocates from Bay Area Women Against Rape, or BAWAR, a rape crisis center that provides counseling to sexual assault victims. They offer the young women snack food and bottled water, and some of them accept it. “We are primarily here for the juveniles,” says Pat Mims, the Sexually Exploited Minor Coordinator for BAWAR. Mims is a tall, thin soft-spoken man. He leans against one of the sedans he and his team arrived in; the trunk is popped open, revealing a partially-depleted case of bottled water and small bags of chips. “We offer services to the adults as well, and let them know they can get free counseling and referral to other services,” he says.
Mims says that BAWAR is Oakland’s first responder for sexually exploited minors, and that the group later refers them on to other counseling and advocacy organizations like the Oakland-based nonprofit MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth). Mims said in the past, the number of adults taking the offered counseling has been low, but it had been increasing in recent months. He believes the increase in counseling requests is due to more information about sexual victimization becoming available and more sex workers beginning to identify themselves as victims of exploitation.
Of the eight girls arrested so far, two are under 18. Each sits with a police officer in a separate squad car with a BAWAR advocate while an officer interviews them and begins filling out a report. But Saleda says it’s hard to tell how many of them are actually under 18—many young sex workers lie about their ages in order to get an earlier release from custody.
Adults are arrested, but because loitering and soliciting are misdemeanors, the punishment is minimal. They’re usually only held for up to 18 hours—longer if they are violating probation or if it’s not their first arrest on this charge—or they may not be taken into custody at all.
Saleda says that while minors are sometimes sent home, if the girl has no home to go to, she will be kept in custody. “We don’t like putting them in [Juvenile] Hall, but sometimes it’s the only place we have,” he said. He said pimps will pressure their girls to lie about their ages so they can be released sooner. “As a pimp, you’ll get an adult back in 12 to 18 hours, but as a juvenile, they might be there for two weeks,” Saleda said.
When the officers have completed their reports, the two minors are loaded into a squad car and sent downtown to the police station for processing: photographs, booking, and fingerprinting. The rest of the girls remain in the large passenger van at the staging area. As I head back to the car, I can see the girls sitting in the seats in the van, talking to each other.
The police officers and I return to the track.
It isn’t long before Saleda and I spot another girl: she’s getting into a dark green sedan. The car begins to drive down International, and we fight the traffic to keep it in sight while the arrest team catches up. Soon a squad car pulls up behind the sedan with its lights flashing. The driver pulls over off of International and we follow.
As an officer talks to the man behind the wheel, I ask Saleda if he’ll be arrested if he turns out to be a john. Saleda says it depends on what the man is saying to the cop right now. He explains that the police can’t cite him for loitering—the car hadn’t been driving in circles or lingering, but had simply stopped to pick up the girl. However, he says, they can probably cite him for solicitation, because an undercover officer overheard their exchange. “A lot of times we’ll find a reason to take them, but it would be on solicitation, not the loitering,” Saleda says. Both crimes are misdemeanors, he says, and the penalty would most likely be a citation.
Saleda puts the car in gear and heads back to the track. I can easily pick out the next two girls, although I’m pretty sure anyone could: young women wearing skin-tight dresses, one in a flashy yellow top and the other in svelte black, with barely-there hemlines. The girl in the black dress stands on the curb watching the traffic and smiling. Yellow Top is much chubbier, and she’s shaking her booty to an inaudible tune. There is cleavage. And high heels.
“There’s two on 45th, looking the part,” Saleda calls over the radio. The thinner girl on the curb spots Saleda watching them, and she smiles. Her face is beautiful and her smile appears genuine, confident. She waves at him and mouths “Hi.”
“They’re not from around here,” Saleda says to me. Another girl in skinny jeans, this one more subtly dressed in a yellow tank top and spike heels, appears on the far end of the block, near the corner of 46th. Saleda picks up the radio to call her in as well.
As we circle back toward the duo on 45th, waiting for the arrest team, I ask Saleda how he knows they’re not from Oakland. “They’re dressed like hookers,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Our girls don’t dress like hookers.” The chubby girl in the yellow top is still dancing; the back of her tight outfit reveals that a large portion of the top is cut out. The rolls of her dark flesh stack unabashedly on top of each other.
“And she’s too brazen,” Saleda says referring to the thin girl in black, who turns her head our direction, and waves again at him. “That’s two waves and a smile for me,” he says into the handheld. To me, he scoffs, “C’mon, a white guy riding with a female in the car, and she’s waving and smiling at me?”
“Our girls know our tactics,” he continues, and again begins to circle the block. “I just hope the arrest team gets here before she gets picked up.” One arrest team is still tied up with the john in the green sedan, and another has headed to the police station with the juveniles.
This is a reoccurring problem for these operations: Too many girls on the streets and not enough arresting officers. Over the radio, we learn the third girl we spotted at 46th has taken off running, having spotted the arrest team’s approaching squad car. Agitated voices sound over the radio, announcing their locations, but it’s soon clear that the officers have caught up with the fleeing girl.
Saleda pulls his unmarked car up to the squad car, now two blocks off of International on a quiet residential road. The girl is about 19 years old. Her hoop earrings sparkle in the afternoon sun along with the tears streaming down her cheeks. Now in handcuffs, she pleads with the arresting officers to give her a break. She complains they shouldn’t be messing with her but the other two girls who aren’t from around here, saying she’d hardly been out there, and that she could prove it — she’d just picked up her son at a local school. Saleda approaches the girl and like a frustrated parent silencing a tantrum, he tells her to help herself by giving him some information he can use. He coaxes her into sitting in the back seat of the squad car while he crouches alongside the car to talk to her.
Saleda later explains that he talks with the girls to first try to get them out of the business, and get them to give up their pimp—often this is a futile attempt, but he says he has to try anyway. Beyond that, he says, prostitutes can often provide information on murders, robberies, or other crimes committed in the area. “They mess around with dope dealers, they mess around with people on the streets. They know everything,” as Chan puts it. If a girl ends up providing truthful information to the police, Saleda says they may ask the district attorney to drop the charges against her “in the interest of justice.”
It turns out, though, that the girl in the yellow does not have anything helpful to say.
Later: same street, different girl. I’m getting better at picking them out. This one has the tight jeans, tank top, and high heels. She is also young, early twenties at most, and attractive. She walks along carrying a small water bottle. (Saleda on the water bottle: “I won’t tell you what that’s for.”) She stops at a convenience store to use the bathroom. Over the radio, the other officers say they have spotted a light blue sedan that’s pulled around the corner to wait for her. There’s a man behind the wheel and two other women in the car. Saleda and I pull over and watch.
The girl emerges from the bathroom and starts walking along the street in the same direction as the car. She gets closer to the car but doesn’t get in. She keeps her eyes on the ground as she walks past it. The car pulls along slowly beside her, as though the driver is trying to get her attention, but she doesn’t look up. She spins around suddenly and heads back the way she came. The car rolls backwards, the driver still trying to get her attention. The girl does not look up.
Saleda watches this action unfold and speaks into the radio, “He’s trying to sweat that girl. … He’s trying to make her get out of pocket so he can take her,” he says—in other words, one pimp is trying to coax another pimp’s girl into his car so that she will work for him instead. The girl, Saleda explains, is supposed to try to avoid him. “If she looked at him, he has the right to take her. That’s the game,” Saleda says.
By now the girl is calling someone on her cell phone, still ignoring the trailing blue car. Saleda on the radio: “Yeah he’s trying to sweat her. She’s on the phone to her own pimp now, trying to get out of here.”
Still watching the girl, he says to me, “As long as she doesn’t look at him, he can’t take her. But she’s a pretty girl, so she’s a money maker.”
Finally, the man appears to have given up and the blue car drives away. “That guy really wanted her,” Saleda says.
Soon, a silver sedan pulls up and the girl gets in. The police officers ask over the radio if anyone has enough evidence to arrest her. Saleda tells them he thinks they have enough: When the man tried to sweat her she behaved like a prostitute, she’s been loitering in the area for over 15 minutes, and she got in the car with what the police consider “an unknown man.”
Saleda later explains that cops who’d been doing this for a while would assume that in this situation, the man driving the car is unknown to her, not a friend or a relative who’d simply shown up to offer a ride. To confirm this, they will typically conduct what’s called a “pre-check stop,” where they pull the person over for a traffic violation and use investigative questioning—like asking the driver for the girl’s name—to assess whether the driver and the passenger know each other.
In this case, the team decides to pursue the girl. Over the radio, we hear that the silver sedan has dropped her off few blocks over, and she has gotten out of the car. Two of the police officers take down the car’s plates before it drives off. Saleda drives his vehicle to the next block, and we wait a few minutes while one of the other undercover cops attempts to make a deal with the girl. If she responds to his solicitation for sex, the officers will have enough evidence to arrest her.
While we wait, Saleda says that he’s sure the girl has a pimp. “She’s too pretty to be out here alone,” he says. “They wouldn’t allow that. She acts like she’s pimp-trained.”
Saleda says that girls who try to work independently don’t do so for long: They can be quickly snatched up by pimps and coerced into working for them through a variety of violent tactics including beatings, gang rapes, or “trunking”—trapping the girl in the trunk of a car until she agrees.
Over the radio, we get word that the cop has made the deal, and the arrest team is on the scene. Saleda heads to their location, but stays behind the wheel observing as the uniformed officer puts the girl in the back of the squad car and shuts the door. As the squad car drives away, I notice two middle-aged women standing on a nearby lawn watching the scene. They turn to head back inside their house, and call out “Thank you” to the police officers.
Earlier, Saleda had told me that prostitution brings down the quality of life in a neighborhood and brings in more crime, violence and drug use. He gestures towards the women who thanked them. “They have to look at it every day and their kids do, too,” he says.
The passenger van back at the staging area is getting full, and the arresting teams are tied up, so Sergeant Chan has the team make one more arrest before calling it a night. Over the radio, one of the undercover officers reports he’s spotted another prostitute, and we drive in his direction.
The officer is busy making the deal when we pass, and I can see this woman is different. She’s older than the others, in her mid-40’s and frail-looking. Her clothing is rumpled and her hair is unkempt. Saleda gathers by her appearance that she’s a junkie, which he says creates a different set of issues for the neighborhood. “She’s one of the bigger problems out here, because she’s the one that will bring narcotics to the area, dump the needles on the ground and stuff like that,” he says.
The team makes the arrest, and Chan instructs everyone to head back to the police station downtown. Now that the operation is over, the undercover officers begin writing their reports, laying out the evidence for each girl’s arrest: what the officers observed, conversations they overheard, or anything else that justifies it.
The police arrested 16 girls today. Saleda says they usually bring in anywhere from 15-20 girls in similar operations, but that the unit is considering switching to smaller “surgical operations” using only a handful of officers to save money. He says it’s costly to do these operations because they involve so many personnel, and with budget cuts within the OPD, different departments are trying to make do with less.
I ask Saleda if arresting girls is an effective way of stopping prostitution, but he says that ending prostitution altogether, using just these methods, isn’t realistic. “We’ll never stop it,” he says, but adds that what the police can do is build cases against pimps and others who exploit young women, putting them behind bars and preventing them from going after other girls in the future. Most days, he says, it’s just a lot of gathering of information and it takes a long time.
“But if you save one girl, is it worth it?” he asks, “Pretty much, it is.”
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