As part of an operation police claim was an effort to stop human trafficking, more than 200 sex workers were detained. The arrests—part of a Super Bowl-adjacent collaboration between Los Angeles law enforcement and the feds—represent an all too common theme in U.S. law enforcement, where people claim to be helping sex workers while actually subjecting them to harm.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department led this round of arrests for sex workers. They have given it the strange name of “Operation Reclaim and Rebuild”. The LASD joined “over 80 participating federal and state law enforcement agencies” and task force from California, according to the press release. This included Homeland Security Investigations (FBI) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Alex Villanueva, Los Angeles County Sheriff, held a press conference on February 15 to promote Operation Reclaim and Rebuild. This annual operation is now in its seventh season. Villaneueva was joined by representatives of the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations, and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation—a conservative values group formerly known as Morality in Media which aims to eradicate all sex work.
Operation Reclaim and Rebuild, a police operation that took place in California for one week was completed. The police claimed that their goal was “to combat human trafficking.”
According to LASD data, the majority of people arrested had attempted to enter consensual prostitutes. At the close of the week, there were 214 arrests for sex selling and 201 arrested for trying to purchase sex.
According to LASD, 53 individuals were arrested in connection with pimping or pandering and supervising prostitutes. And it’s unclear if any of these individuals were engaged in anything that we might think of as abusive or non-consensual behavior—aka sex trafficking. People who sex workers contract to work with are often charged with pimping or pandering. They are those who find clients, provide bodyguards and drive them to appointments or place ads. If two or more sex workers collaborate and the one driving or placing an ad is considered to be a pimp, this person could also face charges of being a pimp. It doesn’t always mean that the accused has been violent or exploitative.
Villanueva claimed yesterday that 30 suspected traffickers were being arrested. However, this doesn’t give much information. What is the definition of “exploiter?” Are there any charges for human trafficking in the real world?
None of this has stopped headlines from announcing the results of Operation Reclaim and Rebuild in a way that implies police found massive amounts of human trafficking—a crime that by definition involves force, fraud, coercion, or minors. According to the report, there were nearly 500 people arrested during a statewide operation against human trafficking. Los Angeles Times headline.)
In reality, most of the arrests—445—were for misdemeanors. An LASD data table shows that 415 arrests were for misdemeanor prostitution. Eleven were involved in other misdemeanors unrelated to sex.
Only 49 of the arrests were for felony charges. Only 49 of the 49 arrests were for felony allegations. Eight of them weren’t related to human trafficking and sex; seven others involved minor sexual felonies. 34 included human trafficking. This last category is not broken down in the report, despite its different consequences.
Here is a complete breakdown of Operation Reclaim and Rebuild “rescues and arrests”. Most of the people counted as rescues—74—were adults, while 8 were minors.
It is unclear what police mean when they refer to “rescues”. Many times, in these operations, sex workers claim they worked under duress to get out of prostitution charges. This might encourage people to lie to police and say that they are victims. Even though they may not have been victimized, it is possible for anyone to accept an offer of help from social services.
Some of the rescues could be forced prostitutes in dire need of law enforcement assistance. The reason these people were not rescued isn’t clear. It would be impossible to arrest hundreds for other crimes.