The police are not our allies in the fight against trafficking

The SPD is not our ally in fighting sex trafficking. Investigative journalists, funds for housing, healthcare, foster care, and education are our allies in the fight against human trafficking. But for short, let’s just call it Defund the Police.

Friday July 31, the Seattle Times published an op-ed stating the “SPD is our ally in fighting sex trafficking”. As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I know that is not true. As a formerly homeless teenager whose taxes paid the salary of the police officer who beat me while I was sleeping, I know that is not true.

In a city whose officers spray our neighbors with chemical weapons banned in warfare by the Geneva Convention and continue performing sweeps on homeless camps in the midst of a pandemic killing thousands each week, I cannot call the Seattle Police Department an ally. Although King County moved 609 homeless people into hotels due to COVID as of May 1, the county’s 2019 homelessness count was 11,199 people. Homelessness and poverty are consistently cited as data points of vulnerability to trafficking. In a tech hub city with Seattle’s extreme economic disparity, it is obvious that trafficking is perpetuated by our austere funding of housing, education, and healthcare in comparison to SPD’s budget. These are the tools we need to sustainably and pragmatically fight exploitation. If SPD was really our ally in the fight against trafficking, they would elect to fund a housing first model, focused on eradicating the root causes of trafficking that they purport to be so against.

As a white cisgender trafficking survivor who does not have to contend with the added barrier of a criminal record, deportation, or fear of being locked indefinitely in a cage by DHS and ICE, I recognize that I have benefited from many intersections of privilege at the hands of police and social workers. Before I turned 18, I could not go to the police or social services for help because I would have been arrested as a runaway and sentenced to the uncertain fate of CPS. It should also be noted that foster youth are statistically at higher risk of being trafficked. Until I was 18, I evaded the police and hid to sleep out of winter rain in the library of the same university where I would work decades later. I watched helplessly as my Black, Indigenous, Latin American and transgender friends were arrested for the same things that I could talk my way out of for infractions like sitting on the sidewalk when I had nowhere else to exist. As a trafficking survivor and formerly homeless Seattle teenager, I estimate that therapy for my PTSD has cost at least $250,000. An amount that is less than the annual salary of most Seattle officers.

To defund the police, as Black Lives Matter protesters have chanted for weeks, is to reallocate and invest in resources that will proactively build a safer and healthier community for us all. To defund the police would mean supporting services that proactively fight the root causes of trafficking which include access to housing, education, poverty, the fallibility of our foster care system, and lack of access to healthcare and mental health resources. In 2019, Seattle’s budget for education was granted less than one third of SPD’s budget for policing and retired officers’ six figure pensions which totalled over $386 million. Seattle’s housing budget was allocated only $69 million by comparison, which is interesting when you consider how much of SPD’s duties revolve around managing homelessness and poverty. It is only logical to wonder then, if Seattle championed a housing first model, would we put SPD out of a job? Seattle’s 2019 police budget indicates an extremely disproportionate amount of taxpayer dollars spent to quell the social ills that Seattle’s systemic inequalities seem designed to exacerbate. In examining our city’s budget, it is apparent that Seattle’s infrastructure year after year has systematically built an environment where trafficking can thrive.

In a preamble to Chief Best’s July 10 announcement that sounds more like a hostage negotiation, SPD Public Affairs threatened that “cuts this deep mean we would lose more than 50% of our Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) officers. These officers’ life experiences make us a better department and community.” To reiterate, this statement is a choice. A choice that I suspect may be deeply influenced by the Police Union. Chief Best is also making choices in the statement to Mayor Durkan, explaining that budget cuts would end SPD’s ICAC unit which investigates Internet Crimes Against Children. These cuts are all choices that SPD is making in the face of a 50% budget cut.

Just before Seattle’s first COVID-19 death, SPD chose to place Captain Randal Woolery on administrative leave when he was arrested by the Vice unit for offering an undercover officer $40 for sex. Assuming that Woolery is receiving the same salary as 2019 records show, his administrative leave is costing us all $211,628.28. Before his arrest for sexual exploitation, Captain Woolery had 31 years on the force and worked in SPD’s Professional Standards Bureau where he reviewed use of force complaints. How can we count SPD as an ally in the fight against sex trafficking when they have appointed personnel in positions of oversight who break their own sex trafficking laws? Local police have proven that they are not very effective in fighting trafficking anyway, as evidenced last year when only 3 arrests were charged with human trafficking (2nd degree) in King County. Or in 2017 when half of the 110 cases in a Bellevue sting were dropped due to an audio recording error.

As a teenager struggling to get off the streets, after I turned 18, I could legally “access services”. Soon after, I was raped by another woman in a youth shelter as I slept. During a pandemic, the close quarters of overcrowded homeless shelters are not safe in the face of COVID-19. Consider, for a moment, what 50% of an SPD officer’s $280,000 salary could do for a trafficking victim. Seattle is an expensive city, but $140,000 could go very far in funding a safe studio apartment for a trafficking victim to live in during a pandemic. $140,000 could pay for computer programming classes at Seattle Community College or another vocational path. $140,000 might even pay for a lifetime of mental health services with a qualified therapist. $140,000 could pay for healthcare and addiction medicine treatment services at a reputable facility. There are programs in other cities that examine the holistic tangle of barriers that trafficking survivors contend with. In L.A., Children of the Night’s robust program helps youth navigate education opportunities, setting them up for sustainable success in adulthood. In the Bay Area, Annie Cannons teaches coding classes to trafficking survivors. How is it possible that in a west coast tech hub city, Seattle does not have a comparable program? Instead, our social workers urge trafficking survivors to take the first food service industry job, hospitality or retail position they can find. I worry that this is motivated by a CompStat-adjacent culture of counting checkboxes on grant applications. These service industry entry level jobs can further victimize survivors by enforcing the same pimp-groomed behaviors of subservience and the continued cycle of inescapable poverty. “The customer is always right” is not a phrase that I want fellow trafficking survivors to hear when they are struggling to recover their autonomy.

In 2012 when Seattle adopted the Nordic Model of policing that conflates the words prostitution and trafficking, the number of arrest charges for prostitution dropped and the number of sexual exploitation charges for “buyers” rose. However this did not rectify the trafficking survivors who already struggled under the bureaucratic yoke of arrest records for prostitution that have been nearly impossible to convince King County courts to expunge. The institutionalized racism that is inherent in many of these policies does not consider how a diversion model, like the Nordic Model, requires there to be funding available for services that actually help survivors. Having been a homeless teenager in Seattle, having worked at homeless youth shelters as an adult, and having watched my younger sister go to prison when she was also homeless, I have stood at the edge and gazed into the huge chasm that lies between the Nordic Model’s goodwill and its pragmatic efficacy. It’s great if the police don’t charge a trafficking survivor with a criminal record that will follow them forever. But if that survivor still can’t access housing, healthcare, education, or a qualified therapist, they are just being diverted back to the street where they will endure more lifelong trauma that Seattleites will ultimately pay the more expensive price tag for when they are hospitalized or arrested for other reasons.

Contrary to Friday’s ominous op-ed warning, no one is rushing into making rash decisions. After all, the slow and steady “Seattle Process” still rules. I laud the Seattle City Council for listening to Black Lives Matter protesters who risked their lives against violent counter protests by the police. These discussions will address how we can effectively build a better and safer community while excavating the deeply entrenched racism of our progressive, overwhelmingly white city. We can do this by listening to and amplifying the voices of our Black, Indigenous, Latin American, Asian, Pacific Islander, POC and transgender neighbors. We do this by challenging the white saviorism that so often plagues anti-trafficking efforts. In June, the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to repeal laws that the city’s own Reentry Workgroup identified as disproportionately targeting people of color. According to the Coalition for Rights and Safety, “Both ordinances have negatively impacted communities of color, but prostitution loitering laws in particular have been used as a pretext for the Seattle Police Department to profile young women of color as suspected “prostitutes,” leading to unnecessary and unwarranted police interactions, background checks, unconsented and possibly illegal searches, harassment, and other harms.”

If we are truly looking for an ally that excels at investigating sex trafficking, as last week’s op-ed implores, we should use a portion of SPD’s outsized budget to fund local investigative journalism. Because if Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald breaking the Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell child sex trafficking cold case is any indication, we should consider subsidizing the cost of local investigative reporters’ work instead of paying the police a bloated budget of $386 million a year. I don’t know what Julie K. Brown’s annual salary is, but I doubt she is paid the typical SPD income that exceeds $200k a year. The SPD is not our ally in fighting sex trafficking. Investigative journalists, funds for housing, healthcare, foster care, and education are our allies in the fight against human trafficking. But for short, let’s just call it Defund the Police.

Sabra is a child trafficking survivor who is seeking an agent for her true crime memoir | The Glass Castle x The Godfather |

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