Jurisprudence

Why Human Trafficking Raids Put Sex Workers At Risk

A vehicle of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office parked while its members conduct operations in the community in Tampa, Florida.
A vehicle of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office parked while its members conduct operations in the community in Tampa, Florida. REUTERS/Octavio Jones

This story was produced in partnership with The Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.

Earlier this month, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced 125 arrests from “Operation Round-up,” a sting aimed at combatting human trafficking. It was the latest in a wave of anti-trafficking stings in Florida’s fourth most populous county, which includes Tampa. In 2019, Chronister conducted two high-profile operations with Hollywood-style names—“Operation Trade Secrets I” and “Operation Trade Secrets II”—that netted 85 and 104 arrests respectively. They’re often uncritically covered by local media, sometimes with mugshots and full names of those arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.

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Chronister’s office said the operation “helped rescue four women and one teenager from the heinous grasp of human trafficking.” But none of the 125 people arrested during Operation Round-up were charged with human trafficking, according to a review of all of the charging documents by The Garrison Project, a new, non-partisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing. Though “Operation Round-up” was almost entirely focused on arrests of men, such stings often operate as a means for police to arrest sex workers under the guise of “rescuing” women from traffickers. Critics of the large operations say law enforcement is harming the very people they say they’re trying to protect.

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Of the charges, 103 arrests were for “soliciting another to commit prostitution,” eight were for “entering or remaining in a place for prostitution,” and two were county ordinance violations for “unlawful acts related to a solicitation event/as a precursor to prostitution.” Four people were charged with aiding and abetting prostitution, two with transporting for prostitution, one with offering to procure another for prostitution, and one with purchasing the services of a person engaged in prostitution. One person was charged only for having a previous warrant. All of these charges were misdemeanors.

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Of the four felony charges, two people with were charged with transmission of harmful material to a minor, using a computer to solicit and other related charges; one was charged with “deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution”; and one person received a felony drug charge for possession in addition to a misdemeanor solicitation charge.

Jessica Lang, a public relations coordinator for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said “Operation Round-up” was “aimed at targeting those who are seeking to take advantage of or exploiting another person through human trafficking.” But she also confirmed that none of the people arrested by the sheriff’s office were charged with human trafficking violations.
Despite the lack of human trafficking charges, Chronister touted “Operation Round-up” as a success. “Our approach and efforts year-round are proactive and relentless. Our strong team of detectives will continue to work tirelessly to takedown and put a stop to human trafficking,” he said in a press release. Chronister also pledged to create a 12-person unit focused on human trafficking, as a result of the operation. “To still see these types of numbers, to still see the number of women we are rescuing, I knew we had to have a full-time squad,” he said.

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Fighting human trafficking funnels resources to law enforcement agencies. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is one of several local agencies in a Human Trafficking Task Force that received nearly $750,000 from the Justice Department early last year.

Chronister’s focus on human trafficking is common amoung law enforcement agencies in Florida. So too is the fact that these stings rarely net traffickers. Perhaps the most high-profile sting was the 2019 raids of massage parlors on Florida’s east coast that resulted in nearly 300 arrests, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, charged with soliciting prostitution. “It’s manifestly obvious to us that this is human trafficking,” Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said. But soon afterward, prosecutors admitted that no one arrested in the raids was charged with human trafficking. “There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation,” said an assistant state attorney. In September 2020, Florida prosecutors dropped the case against Kraft entirely.

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Part of the problem is that law enforcement officers continue to conflate sex work with trafficking. Under Florida law, trafficking victims are defined as those who are “subjected to force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor.” But research shows, that most people in the sex work industry do not enter because of force or coercion. The arrests in Florida continue to back up these claims. For example, in 2020, The Appeal found that the vast majority of charges in “Operation Trade Secrets II” were for solicitation, and that nearly 30 of the arrests were simply of sex workers.

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Sex workers say that these mass arrests make their work less safe by putting them at constant risk of arrest and prosecution.  At the same time they do nothing to solve the problem of human trafficking. “An arrest doesn’t address the social issues that bring people to sex work,” one Tampa sex worker, who asked not to be identified, said.

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The emphasis by sheriffs departments on clients of sex workers is part of a larger approach to halting trafficking called “End Demand” that focuses on arrests of clients instead of sex workers themselves. As was the case in Hillsborough County, the arrests are often widely publicized and include the names and mugshots of men. The purpose of this tactic is to discourage people from seeking out sex workers.

But research has shown that End Demand results in increased harms against sex workers, including reduced access to health and community services and increasing their risk of violence.  A policy brief by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects argues that End Demand puts sex workers in dangerous work conditions. “Women sex workers report feeling increasingly unable to refuse clients’ demands for unprotected sex, accepting clients they previously would have refused, and working in riskier locations, for longer hours and at night in order to continue to meet their basic financial needs in the face of reduced demand,” the brief states.

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“There’s no real evidence that targeting demand for commercial sex impacts human trafficking and we do have a considerable body of research that they do cause harm,” said Erin Albright, who has worked with multi-disciplinary anti-trafficking taskforces for nearly 15 years. “Beyond that though, my concern about these operations comes down in part to resources. They can be pretty extensive and expensive, and rarely identify actual victims. So my concern is, how much money are we spending on these—and for what outcomes—when we have victims of trafficking who can’t find safe housing.”

Chronister’s office referred the women to Selah Freedom, an anti-trafficking non-profit based in Sarasota that runs a 22-bed residential shelter for trafficking victims. The organization, which brought in $4 million in revenue in 2019, is also part of the Tampa Bay human trafficking task force.

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Stacey Efaw, Selah Freedom’s executive director, said it could not confirm it is providing services to these women, or explain the services it is providing them, for privacy reasons. She said their services, which include therapy and job assistance programs, are not mandatory in cases of law enforcement referrals. “It’s voluntary, if they want help,” Efaw said.But Alex Andrews, the cofounder of the Sex Workers Outreach Program Behind Bars, which provides support for incarcerated sex workers and victims of trafficking, says these services aren’t always perceived as voluntary by those who are referred to them by law enforcement. “It’s not referred for services so much as it is coerced into services. We call it coercive intervention, where they get a choice between going to jail, or going to this program,” Andrews said. “They try to talk them into being victims, because otherwise they’re going to criminalize them.”

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Andrews said organizations like Selah Freedom that see all sex work as trafficking miss the chance to help people who are engaging in sex work access supports like mental and physical health care and safety planning. “In order to do that,” she said, “you have to recognize bodily autonomy and the spectrum of consent.”

In the best case scenario, women arrested in these stings are “referred to people who may or may not help them, and they may or may not want the help,” said Aya Gruber, a criminal law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. “But in the typical scenario, women are arrested, they’re processed, some can end up with cases, and some are now in the purview of the police and the police are on the lookout for them.”

Chronister and other agencies’ raids aren’t actually designed to end trafficking, Gruber points out. Instead, they are simply “interrupting a sex work operation.” In the long run, Gruber said, these tactics could actually make the problem worse. Frequent raids that sweep sex workers up into the criminal justice system “could make them worse off, and more destitute” upping the likelihood that they “come in the grips of an exploiter.”

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