Access aside, I don’t think I could be out there every night.
It’s eight hours of endless loops around a short stretch of Pacific Highway South, looking for prostitutes. It’s chatter on the push-to-talk Nextels, against a background of radio calls with Dispatch; an aural web of bad things happening in SeaTac. And it’s waiting, watching traffic, seated in an Andy’s overheated passenger compartment, a shotgun strapped to the ceiling.
It’ll go something like this:
“I’ve got one,” Brian might say over the Nextel. “Walking north past the Casino. She’ll be by you soon, Rich.”
“Does she look young?” Joel might ask.
“Yeah,” Brian might respond. “She’s got a hooker jacket. She’s looking back at traffic…she’s definitely trying to make contact.”
Time passes. She’ll keep walking, leisurely, her short-cropped jacket with its faux fur-lined hood one of the markers the detectives look for.
“I think we know her,” Rich, the Sergeant, might say from his vantage point.
“Remember that one from…” and he’ll cite a previous arrest, trying to dredge up the name.
She has to want to leave the life if she’s to be successful. And even then, it’s no guarantee. It’s a long road.
They will follow her for a bit, leapfrogging, pulling into parking lots, watching. They’ve ID’d her; she’s not a minor, maybe 20, and she’s already got a SOAP order (stay out of area of prostitution). They could arrest her now, but the focus of their work is to find underaged girls being prostituted by pimps, with the goal of helping the girls get out of the life, arrest the johns and get the pimps, if they can.
But maybe it’s not her night; no one is picking her up. Just as they decide to contact her, either to check in with her or to cite her for violating her SOAP order, Donyelle might come over the Nextel.
“I’ve got a young one,” he’ll say.
They’ll pull away from the out-of-luck 20 year old. With the same drive-by, park and watch routine, they’ll monitor the new girl as she walks down the highway, always with traffic, looking over her shoulder, trying to make contact with the men cruising for a “date.”
Maybe this one gets picked up quickly. Maybe she’s attractive.
They’ll follow the car as it turns off the highway, retreating into some dark spot; the distant corner of a parking lot, a residential neighborhood, wherever the john feels safe. They’ll give it a few minutes; by watching her they’ve got “Probable Cause” but they like to wait for the “Offer and Agreement” to occur, the deal where he offers her money for sex. They will sneak up to the car, then shine flashlights through the windows. Andy will pull up, his low-profile patrol car now flashing lights.
“Sheriff’s Office!” the detectives will say from the darkness, hands on their hip, next to their badge and gun.
Doors are opened. The john is asked to get out. Since I’ve been riding with the police I’ve seen family men, a baby seat, a porn-filled SUV, a minivan. The men are Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, African American. I’ve met sex offenders, convicted felons, drug dealers.
They struggle to explain what they were doing.
“I was just giving her a ride,” is usually the first denial.
“Then how come your pants were around your ankles?” Was one response I heard. “What, was she just resting her head in your lap?”
And the girls. Some cry. Most are kind of stunned. One, in her mid twenties, told the detectives she’s doing it for drugs. She knows what they’re looking for and said they’ve got bigger fish to fry. They let her walk.
But, maybe tonight, the girl is underage. It’s a felony for the john.
Last week, when I wasn’t scheduled to ride with them, Andy sent an email.
“We got three girls tonight, one was a 14 yr. old,” he typed with typical brevity. “One of the older girls had a great attitude and has been in the life since she was 15.”
And that’s the trick, he’s found. Attitude. She has to want to leave the life if she’s to be successful. And even then, it’s no guarantee. It’s a long road.
“Leaving the Life” is a documentary project by Tim Matsui on grassroots efforts to address Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST). This project is funded by the Alexa Foundation’s Women’s Initiative Grant. See more posts from this project here.