Preparation for Super Bowl 50 has been well underway for more than a year and includes a massive collaboration amongst local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and the FBI as criminals engaged in human trafficking are anticipated to take advantage of the locally-held 2016 event.
San Mateo County is uniquely situated between the game-day action of the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara and the bustling draw of San Francisco. Add in three international airports, the heightened use of technology to market prostitution and communities across the Bay Area slated to host game-related events; and officials are certain federal and local agencies must work together to crack down on pimps and Johns while assisting victims.
For the ninth year, the FBI is setting up a human trafficking operation center while bringing in additional agents and intelligence analysts specifically in response to the Super Bowl. Based out of its Oakland office, the center will serve as a hub of information and resources for law enforcement agencies across the region, said FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Bertram Fairries.
In previous host cities, there’s been “an increase in activity with respect to human trafficking and specifically sex trafficking and the exploitation of juveniles and minors around the Super Bowl. There’s no scientific reason other than the traffickers and pimps who do this type of thing recognize it brings in lots of people that are in a celebratory mood and have money to spend,” Fairries said.
With Congress recently passing a law allowing for additional charges of anyone involved in human trafficking, Fairries said the FBI and local agencies will be actively prosecuting Johns or those who solicit prostitution.
NFL festivities extend far beyond the big game and Fairries noted unlike other Super Bowls that have taken place in a large, central city, the landscape of the Bay Area could pose additional challenges.
Law enforcement is actively preparing a multi-pronged response to human traffickers’ tendency of exploiting the Super Bowl — particularly as technology has changed the landscape with solicitation often veiled behind a computer screen.
Reaching out to the front lines
San Mateo County personnel will be working closely with the FBI, particularly through its own task force that has helped to implement protocol for spreading awareness and handling victims.
Mike Brosnan, the county’s Human Trafficking Program coordinator and the former South San Francisco deputy police chief, is planning a training session next month for law enforcement, dispatchers, first responders, and those who are on the front lines but may not even know it.
“We know that the hotel and hospitality industry could be our eyes and our ears and our reporting parties of the future,” Brosnan said. “The verbiage, ‘see something, say something’ is snowballing across the nation on many levels. Because the days of seeing something and being quiet have to be over. … Our hope is that everybody starts to educate themselves on what this could be, what this could look like. Engage in the conversation and if they see something that they define as suspicious, to call. Because the only way we can help, is if we know about it.”
San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer agreed training hospitality industry staff is a must as the Internet has pushed many of the victims behind closed doors.
It’s important to educate those “on the front lines of where prostitutes would be human trafficked and how to recognize that,” Manheimer said. “You won’t see street walkers on corners, it’s not done that way in San Mateo County. It’s through the Internet, through sites advertising those caught in the cycle of human trafficking.”
Fairries said the FBI is working with the private sector and tech companies to scour the Internet reviewing websites, photos and anything that provides identifying location information — one example is working with hotel staff and implementing software to review photos advertising prostitution in which the background or room can identify where crimes may be taking place.
“The world of technology has taken this industry. … It’s all online and they are becoming smarter and they’re using technology to the best of their ability. Then when you start going to the hidden web or the Tor network, that presents a challenge, then cellphones and Twitter and Snapchat and WhatsApp. Those present challenges,” Fairries said. “But when we can get a hold of it, it gives us evidence and records. … So we try to collaborate as much as we can with private sector partners and people in the tech industry.”
Coping with the aftermath
Fairries noted each case differs and will ultimately determine whether the FBI or local prosecutors will step in after an arrest is made.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said he’s glad to let certain cases be prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office if it allows for stricter penalties.
Proud that there’s many agencies working on different fronts, Wagstaffe said his office is more than willing to go after traffickers and those exploiting victims.
“For those cases that don’t meet [federal] standards, we’ll anxiously take it. I’ve got a prosecutor that’s specially trained to handle these and we work hand in hand with the agencies and with Mike Brosnan,” Wagstaffe said, noting raising awareness of the penalties and resources allocated to punishing these crimes seemed to have deterred prostitution at last year’s Super Bowl. Still, “If their desire to chase the dollar is strong enough for anyone in our county, they get the full force of the law with us.”
While court cases are known to drag on, an often longer struggle can be for the victims. Wagstaffe said one of the hardest parts of prosecuting human traffickers or pimps is keeping the victims around to testify.
“We do what we can, and the police do what they can, but the defense attorneys know to try and drag it out,” Wagstaffe said, adding long-term care can be challenging. “Providing [the victims] with services and keeping them engaged so they don’t just disappear back into that world.”
Manheimer said she’s grateful for the leadership of U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and for county officials who’ve begun to recognize many of those working in prostitution are victims. For those who are trafficked, their pimps often control every aspect of their lives from food to shelter while forcing them to commit multiple sex acts a day, Manheimer said.
Working with local and regional social service agencies, nonprofits and victims rights groups is pivotal, Manheimer said.
Fairries agreed adding it’s imperative as traffickers ensure their victims are dependent upon them and those who are rescued need immediate services like housing, food, counseling and general reassurance to break the cycle.
“When you pull that victim out of the situation, that’s just the beginning. Then it’s what can we do, how are we going to promote a sense of security that keeps them from going back,” Fairries said, adding the FBI is particularly focused on those who exploit minors.
Brosnan said while some may argue prostitution is one of the world’s oldest professions, the truth is usually it’s the traffickers and pimps who are profiting by sexually exploiting unwilling victims.
All agreed addressing sex victims both long term and creating a saturated effort surrounding the Super Bowl will take collaboration as human trafficking by its nature, extends across jurisdictional boundaries.
“You will see as we lead up to the Super Bowl, increased operations and training and awareness,” Manheimer said. “It really requires everyone — the DA, probation, victims advocates, police and county resources to make sure we’re not criminalizing those who are being exploited, and making sure we are sanctioning those who are accountable.”
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