SANTA CRUZ – Most are adults and about 30 percent of Santa Cruz County’s human trafficking victims are commanded by female traffickers.
“It’s the new crack cocaine,” Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills said Wednesday morning to police officers and badged supervisors at the police department’s community room. “Except with trafficking, you can sell it over and over.”
Every officer raised a hand when asked whether he or she has responded to a sexual-assault case. The cases, too often, lack information, one officer said. Those missing details are common in human trafficking, which includes sexual assault, domestic violence, kidnapping, abuse and other crimes involving victims too vulnerable, or too traumatized, to report their situation. The training, part of a twice-monthly program at the department, was designed to teach officers how to identify the subtle signs of human trafficking — holding a person by means of force, fraud and coercion.
The FBI has identified the San Francisco Bay Area, including Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, as one of the three highest-intensity child sex trafficking regions in the country.
Mills said Santa Cruz Police Department, unlike metro departments, lacks a unit dedicated to human trafficking.
Deborah Pembrook, who teaches others about the problem through the Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, said trafficking is happening in Santa Cruz County. About 30 percent of the traffickers are women, Pembrook said. Traffickers can be anyone, a trusted family friend to gang members immersed in organized crime. The trafficked may appear to be the criminal, such as a drug dealer. And many trafficking victims are so traumatized by the abnormal lifestyle, they struggle to find a way out and relapse, Pembrook said.
Pembrook said, of the 25 forms of human trafficking observed by the Polaris Project, an initiative that defines human trafficking as a form of slavery and a “multibillion dollar criminal industry,” most have been observed in Santa Cruz County. Those include escort services, illicit massage, strip clubs and cantinas, pornography and covert crimes disguised by traveling sales, commercial cleaning services and restaurant work. She said human trafficking has not been observed locally in manufacturing industries or people trafficked from recreational areas.
Many victims of human trafficking are branded like animals. Their tattoos, which Pembrook showed on a projector screen, may be phrases stating they belong to someone. Detective Laurel Schonfield, who works human trafficking and other cases, said one of the photos depicting a cheetah tattoo was taken in a case that has linked tips of trafficking from Santa Cruz County to Florida. She said the crimes have no boundaries.