The Sting and a Changing of the Guard – Women’s Initiative Update from Tim Matsui

Joel interviewing a prostitute. Photo by Tim Matsui

It was scheduled for two nights, and the list of players was long. FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Seattle Police, Sheriff’s Office, SeaTac police, and some others. They slip my mind.

The sting was a joint operation, run by the Sheriff’s Office, and took place in SeaTac. This is the home turf of the detectives I’ve been following, so I had an in with them, but it was tenuous. Given the number of agencies involved, the sergeant was wary of my presence.

I felt my access could change at any moment, leaving me out in the cold, but in this case I got closer. The guarded looks I first received became more relaxed; the cops I didn’t know soon became real people. But the oddness of the situation still hit me: one journalist, some 20 cops, sex workers, and a hotel room. It’s an oddness I feel with this project as a whole for, as the story increases in complexity, I am being drawn deeper into the lives of my subjects.

The operation itself was pretty simple. Find underage girls working in the commercial sex industry and, using the blunt tool that arrest provides, attempt to get them out of the life and connect them with aftercare services. If they arrested a pimp in the process, all the better, but that’s a lot more complicated.

Another stood with her hand on her hip; she knew the game, and she was more afraid of her pimp than the cops.

For this operation the cops went online, looking at profiles of young women offering escort services, dates, companionship. Mostly they’d look at Backpage.com or the TnAboard, scrolling through profile pictures looking for young ones. Then they made a call or sent a text asking to meet. Some girls and pimps know which numbers belong to cops, or suspected cops, and won’t answer. Others are too busy or just flaky.

Having booked hotel rooms, the police staged themselves; in one room, a detective posed as a “john,” the sex buyer. Other rooms are for interviews and one for monitoring the “sting” room. Additional detectives lay in wait outside.

Any car dropping off a sex worker is watched or followed; this could be a pimp. The tricky part is the young woman has to make an offer and agreement for sex before she can be arrested. Then the suspect in the car can be detained but, unless the young woman says it’s her pimp, it’s hard to hold the suspect. And the pimps train them; she will have a false identity, will lie about what she does and her relationships. The cops know she’s probably willing to go to jail for her pimp.

I was dropped off in a room with two SeaTac detectives. The game was on and pizza arrived. But the beer was missing, and the tasers and radios were out of place. Then the signal went out and the cops piled out of the room for the arrest.

That night there were no minors; the youngest was 18. There was a young mother of two with a drug addiction. She was later arrested again on a subsequent sting. There was another who couldn’t fathom she was being arrested. Another stood with her hand on her hip; she knew the game, and she was more afraid of her pimp than the cops. A cop told me she confessed that she’d catch a beating for this.

Not everyone is arrested. If there’s a pre-existing warrant, they need to be. If they lie, they might be. If they’re honest about what they’re doing, they are often let go or given the option to go to the Genesis Project drop in center for the night. But that was then.

The sting happened a few months ago, on a cold winter night. Since then, spring has passed and summer is settling into the Northwest.

The detectives have resigned from the Genesis Project and stopped delivering sex workers to the drop in center. For the moment, they’ve shifted their work back to narcotics. It would be interesting to follow this too, but it doesn’t relate as much to my story.

Conner, the patrol officer who thought to start the non profit, is under investigation and on administrative leave. He is using the time to reshape the organization, to keep it closer to his original vision, and to catch up on home projects.

I’ve used the time to get closer to one of the young women the cops pulled in during the winter. She’s the one in the robe.

The story has changed, grown more complicated, and deepened. I intend to stay with it, through the changing of the guard, to see if this concept of victim-centric law enforcement is replicable. If so, it may be the beginning of some sweeping changes in how America addresses domestic minor sex trafficking.

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.

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