By San Luis Obispo County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force Board
Two months into 2021, we have been repeatedly reminded that human trafficking is a very real threat, and it does, in fact, take place here locally.
January was human trafficking awareness month. Across the nation, statewide and locally, there were online summits, daily reminders on social media, and official proclamations made that human trafficking is a true danger to our society. Near the end of January, the latest installment of Operation Reclaim and Rebuild took place. Operation Reclaim and Rebuild is a statewide proactive multi-agency operation launched by California law enforcement investigators to recover trafficking victims and arrest traffickers. This year’s effort netted hundreds of arrests, and most importantly, the recovery and rescue of human trafficking victims. This was the second large-scale operation that took place in California in the month of January.
The first was Operation Lost Angels, which occurred early in January which was primarily geared towards recovering lost, missing, and exploited children. These events took place in the month of January, which symbolically demonstrates law enforcement’s recognition of the reality of human trafficking and their dedication to fighting this epidemic. These operations have proven to be worthwhile ventures and well worth the time and effort that goes into the planning and execution of these large-scale investigations.
The San Luis Obispo Counter Human Trafficking Team participated in both proactive operations as well as other public outreach opportunities recently, which demonstrates the commitment to the cause by the Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, and other partner agencies. If there was ever a question of whether human trafficking is here in San Luis Obispo County, it was confirmed early on in 2021.
On the first day of participation in Operation Reclaim and Rebuild 2021, the Counter Human Trafficking Team located and recovered a missing 15-year-old from out of state that was being trafficked and sexually exploited here on the Central Coast. This should serve as a bleak reminder that happens here. Trafficked victims are here, and our fellow citizens are paying for sex. However, it should serve as an encouragement that there is a team of dedicated detectives, prosecutors, and victim advocates that believe in the cause and are addressing the problem head-on.
As we reflect back, 2020, in short, was the year that the San Luis Obispo County Counter Human Trafficking Team became fully operational. The core team, which is comprised of one District Attorney Investigator, one Sheriff’s Detective, and one Sheriff’s Sergeant, is assigned to the Sheriff’s Special Operations Unit. When “fully operational”, the Counter Human Trafficking team incorporates law enforcement partners from the FBI, the California Highway Patrol, the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department, and others. A key partner in providing support since the inception of the Counter Human Trafficking has been the non-profit DeliverFund who’s primary goal has been to equip, train, and advise law enforcement on targeting, identifying, and apprehend traffickers while rescuing and restoring victims.
Other critical partners in this fight have neighboring partners from the Santa Barbara and Ventura County Human Trafficking Task Forces.
In terms of statistics and results, 2020 was a successful venture for the Counter Human Trafficking Team. Despite the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic posed, there were still several proactive and reactive investigations and operations that were conducted by the Counter Human Trafficking Team. In total, 27 total investigative operations were executed. These operations included but were not limited to operations that sought high-value targets, meaning likely trafficked victims, pimp targeted operations, prostitution enforcement, massage parlor enforcement, and “john” or sex purchaser operations.
Two investigations had out-of-state links. In general, the Counter Human Trafficking tried to take a holistic approach to the issue of human trafficking. This approach results from the belief that human trafficking is best described as a supply and demand problem. As such, the Counter Human Trafficking Team has made an effort to stem the tide of trafficking in San Luis Obispo County by targeting potential traffickers, rescuing victims, and investigating the demand side of the equation – the local sex purchasers. As a result, in 2020, the Counter Human Trafficking Team investigated five human trafficking cases, and to date have filed thirteen prostitution cases, twenty-one cases against sex purchasers, and conducted multiple other investigations into crimes ranging from child pornography, various forms of internet exploitation, and other crimes related to human trafficking such as pimping and pandering. The Counter Human Trafficking has also referred three cases to be reviewed for potential federal charging.
To sum up, what the Counter Human Trafficking Team strives for, it is to rescue victims and target traffickers, holding them accountable for their actions.
This is why the teams’ mission statement and primary goal is to “Disrupt human trafficking networks and create instability in the sexual exploitation market by leveraging assets, resources, and relationships”. To this end, the Counter Human Trafficking Team has placed an emphasis on becoming trained to recognize the signs of exploitation, worked hard to develop sound investigative and tactical procedures to identify and locate potential victims, and established solid professional working relationships statewide and across the country. This sort of networking and collaboration has proven critical in numerous investigations. It has provided an ability for agencies outside of San Luis Obispo County to have a direct contact to an investigative team here locally should an out-of-county investigation have potential leads into San Luis Obispo County.
So, where do we go from here?
The Counter Human Trafficking Team is moving into 2021 with a full head of steam, participating in three proactive operations to date. The most recent operation being Operation Reclaim and Rebuild 2021, as stated. This year the Counter Human Trafficking Team will continue to provide training to law enforcement personnel, the hospitality industry, and the community as opportunities present themselves. A primary goal for 2021 is to finalize and implement a curriculum of “Roll Call” training aimed at training patrol-level law enforcement personnel on current human trafficking trends. In this way, our local first responders will be equipped with relevant and up-to-date information on what human trafficking looks like and how to properly address it.
Continued proactive investigation into human trafficking and exploitation issues on the Central Coast will continue, and collaborative efforts with law enforcement partners are expected to continue and expand. The Counter Human Trafficking Team looks to build off the lessons and successes of the past year and continue to take the fight against traffickers and exploiters that make their way into San Luis Obispo County.
The Counter Human Trafficking Team strives to make San Luis Obispo County an undesirable location for traffickers to operate in. To that end, investigators will continue to take the fight directly to the problem and utilize every resource possible to rescue victims and hold their traffickers accountable.
The Counter Human Trafficking Team believes that the future is bright for this noble and necessary endeavor on the Central Coast.
Note: If any community group is desirous of a training session from the San Luis Obispo County Counter Human Trafficking Team, please contact the Sheriff’s Special Operations Unit at the Sheriff’s Detective Division or the San Luis Obispo Counter Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force at the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office.
Kara Smith, Senior Targeting Analyst for DeliverFund
Hunting with the Huntress:
National Human Trafficking Hotline Resource page:
Getting through this together, Atascadero