Every day in San Mateo County, people in our community are bought and sold for profit. Unlike our urban neighbors, we don’t generally see it on our street corners, but the Peninsula is definitely a destination for those being exploited by the sex trade. On any given day, there are 25-30 prostitutes advertising their services online in our county. In many cases, prostitutes are being sexually trafficked or “pimped,” and some of these prostitutes are children.
Via the Internet, advertisements, phone “out-call” services and storefront brothels, prostitutes are delivered to our hotels, motels and other venues. Many are sent by those seeking to dominate and profit from their sexual exploitation. You may conjure up your own stereotypes about the “Happy Hooker,” but we in law enforcement know that the exact opposite is most often the reality.
Each year in our country, an estimated 100,000 women and children are forcibly exploited by others, and over one third of them are minors, mostly girls. Shockingly, the average age of entry into prostitution is between 12-14. They are often neglected or runaway youth targeted by predators who sense their vulnerability and dominate them by any and all means to prostitute them for profit.
For anyone who believes that prostitution is a victimless crime — make no mistake — these children are often forced into submission and servitude at an early age. By the time they come into contact with our officers, they are generally so hardened and dependent upon their abusers that it is very tough to extricate them from this brutal existence and hold their traffickers accountable.
Luckily, our state and federal legislators have recognized this and given us some new laws and resources to make it easier to prosecute human traffickers for their crimes, particularly against minors. California’s Proposition 35 increased prison terms for human and sex trafficking and requires convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders and pay criminal fines to assist victims.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, has led the charge in the Bay Area, challenging our criminal justice systems to make this a top priority. Here in San Mateo County, we have risen to that challenge, and our County Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Association has worked doggedly over this past year to formulate a comprehensive protocol and operational network to attack human trafficking on the Peninsula.
Our Human Trafficking Protocol for Law Enforcement provides guidelines and establishes standards for public safety call takers, dispatchers, first responders and investigators in handling human trafficking incidents. Our district attorney has dedicated resources to prosecute these cases. While human trafficking takes many forms, we are focused on domestic trafficking in which people, especially minors, are forced into prostitution.
The fact that suspected prostitutes may be victims of human trafficking may not be readily apparent to arresting officers. This protocol seeks to assist law enforcement in recognizing human trafficking in these cases and protecting victims through training, special protocol and victims’ services. A victim-centered approach is critical to rescue those embedded in these destructive and exploitive activities. We are working with our nonprofit service partners and victims’ advocates to establish shelters and incorporate trauma-informed protocol and victim services to end the cycle of sexual exploitation, particularly for minors.
In San Mateo County, the business of sex trafficking has been taken indoors out of the eyes of law enforcement. Hotels, motels and certain storefront brothels are at the epicenter of sex trafficking in the Peninsula, and an important part of our countywide protocol involves concerted efforts focused on training and working with our hospitality industry to stop this victimization.
We have developed and are presenting special training for our hospitality industry across the county to enlist their help in identifying and reporting these illicit activities. The San Mateo and Foster City police departments have partnered with the San Mateo Area Chamber of Commerce to host this training in San Mateo.
It is also important that our communities understand and support these activities and, throughout the next few months, we will be engaged in a public awareness campaign throughout the county to bring to light the dangers associated with human trafficking. Each and every community member can help by being diligent and alert in looking for signs of sexual trafficking or identifying potential victims. Don’t be hesitant to contact your police — we are well prepared and ready to intervene — victims lives depend on it!
Human trafficking is modern-day slavery in which human beings are bought and sold for profit. Often compelled by force or fear, these victims need us to intervene and bring their traffickers to justice. San Mateo County is now well positioned to do just that, so please help us combat this epidemic before it’s too late for those caught up in this vicious cycle.
Susan Manheimer is the San Mateo police chief and the immediate past president of the San Mateo County Chiefs and Sheriff’s Association.