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In A Florida County, Sex Workers Are Ensnared In ‘Trafficking’ Raids

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister’s stings, conducted under the guise of targeting human trafficking, netted the largest number of arrests there since 2008. Sex workers say the operations put them at risk.

Illustrations by Cameron Wray.

On Nov. 18, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister held a press conference to announce the results of Operation Trade Secrets II, a six-month sting that purported to target human traffickers. Flanked on one side by a placard of mugshots and on the other by a video of deputies handcuffing men and women in a hotel, Chronister told reporters that undercover detectives arrested 104 people.

“Like any business, the human trafficking industry boils down to supply and demand,” he said. “I strongly believe that in order to eradicate human trafficking, we must continue to focus on reducing the demand.” 

But according to the sheriff’s own data, 28 of the arrests were sex workers charged with prostitution. Sixty-three others were charged with soliciting, a first-degree misdemeanor that, for a first-time charge, can result in one year in jail or a fine of up to $1,000. Though many of the people charged with soliciting in Operation Trade Secrets II were first-time offenders, some have paid fines exceeding $4,000, according to court documents. Others were diverted to a “misdemeanor intervention program” and charged a $75 fee.  

Only three people were arrested and charged with human trafficking, defined by Florida law as “transporting, soliciting, recruiting, harboring, providing, enticing, maintaining, or obtaining another person for the purpose of exploitation of that person.” 

Luis Colon, 29, and Jason Fitzgerald, 36, were charged with human trafficking after they responded to an online ad posted by an undercover detective who posed as a man selling his teenage stepdaughter, according to the sheriff’s press conference. If convicted, Colon and Fitzgerald face life imprisonment. Both are in jail on bonds of $259,500 and $109,500.

Steven Cook, 29, was charged with human trafficking after a woman told investigators that Cook forced her to have sex for profit. Sheriff’s office spokesperson Crystal Clark wrote in an email to The Appeal that the woman was initially arrested for prostitution, but “in cases such as this, prostitution charges are later dropped by the SAO [state attorney’s office] after someone is proven to be a human trafficking victim.” Despite text messages from Cook that, according to the arrest report, appeared to corroborate the trafficking charge, the state attorney’s office closed the case against Cook after it contacted the woman, and she did not respond.

Now, just two people out of the 104 arrested remain charged with human trafficking. 

“The sheriff is on the news saying he is trying to stop human trafficking, but he’s picking up everybody,” said Anne, a 24-year-old sex worker arrested in the sting who spoke to The Appeal on the condition of anonymity. “Some of us live off this.” 

On January 23, the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office announced the completion of “two undercover human trafficking operations.” Five people were arrested, but only one person was charged with human trafficking; the other four people were arrested on charges ranging from traveling to meet a minor for unlawful sex to unlawful use of a two-way communications device. 

The two stings netted the largest number of arrests in a Hillsborough County sheriff’s office raid since 2008, Clark wrote in an email. Chronister, who was elected in 2018, has pledged to make policing human trafficking a priority, and said that the stings are going to continue. 

“The efforts behind Operation Trade Secrets will have no ending until human trafficking is stopped,” Chronister said in June.

An anti-trafficking operation in early 2019 by a slew of Florida law enforcement agencies, including the Martin County sheriff’s office, yielded similar results: busts of massage parlors, arrests for solicitation, including the arrest of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, but no trafficking charges. “No one is being charged with human trafficking,” said Greg Kridos, an assistant state attorney. “There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation.” That hasn’t stopped prosecutors, however, from claiming in a December filing in Kraft’s case that “investigations into illicit prostitution schemes often yield evidence of more serious crimes, including the modern-day slavery that underlies the felony offense of sex trafficking.” 

In addition to the large-scale stings, Chronister has also promised his office will focus more on arresting clients of sex workers, because “people who profit from trafficking women and children, along with those who pay to engage in this awful trade, must always be held accountable.” In an email to The Appeal, Clark wrote that “there’s an increased effort to focus on Johns in hopes of curbing their behavior, which we believe will ultimately help decrease the demand for human trafficking.”

Illustrations by Cameron Wray.

This increased focus on clients is a key component of the end-demand model of combating trafficking, in which buying sex is a crime, while selling sex is purportedly decriminalized. “End demand” posits that if clients of sex workers fear arrest or sense of shame, the demand for sex work or human trafficking will decrease, followed by a reduction in the “supply” (sex workers or trafficking victims). 

While these policies have been in place in some European countries since the 1990s and are often referred to as the “Nordic model,” the approach has become increasingly popular among sheriffs and nonprofits in the U.S. in the last decade, said Kate D’Adamo, a sex workers’ rights advocate at the Woodhull Freedom Foundation. This is due in large part to an organization called Demand Abolition that poured millions of dollars in funding to police departments and district attorneys’ offices starting in 2014. In 2018, The Intercept reported that Demand Abolition gave the King County (Seattle) district attorney’s office approximately $191,667 over a four-year period to conduct arrests and prosecutions of buyers.

Now, D’Adamo said, the rhetoric of end demand—”no buyers, no business”—is much more pervasive. In late December, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said he supports the model. D’Adamo said that although sheriffs often frame targeting buyers as a means to empower victims and reduce trafficking, ultimately, it is just a new way to continue to same policing tactics that caused demonstrable harm to sex workers. “It’s like putting fur inside your handcuffs,” D’Adamo said. “It might not leave the same marks, but you’re still in handcuffs.” 

In countries that have adopted end-demand policies, police surveillance of sex workers has increased. Even though selling sex is no longer criminalized, police still arrest sex workers, since activities adjacent to it, like living with other sex workers, continue to be illegal. In Operation Trade Secrets II, one man was arrested for transporting another for prostitiution because he drove one woman, a sex worker, to meet the undercover detective. Reports of violence against sex workers, particularly those from marginalized communities, have also increased after end-demand policies are implemented, according to research and reports in Norway, Ireland, and Vancouver, Canada

Sex workers like Kristen Cain, who organizes with the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Tampa, attribute the increase in violence to a decreased ability to filter clients for safety. Under the end-demand model, clients are less likely to answer questions from sex workers or agree to meet them at a place that the sex worker is comfortable with because they fear the worker could be an undercover officer. In these situations, sex workers have little bargaining power, as their livelihood is dependent on the client. In practice, advocates say, as long as any aspect of sex work is criminalized, it doesn’t matter who the police go after. “Coming after the client means they’re coming after me,” Cain said. “It means they’re coming after the person who pays my bills, the person who means I can pay my rent, I can pay my utilities, pay my car insurance—which means they’re coming after me.”

Prostitution arrests in Hillsborough County have declined—arrests fell from 846 in 2008 to 245 in 2018—but sex workers say that more recently they have come under attack by both local law enforcement and politicians. 

In April 2017, WFLA, an NBC affiliate in Tampa, Florida, aired a report about the city’s Kennedy Boulevard that claimed a lack of law enforcement there allowed “Asian massage parlors” that were allegedly fronts for human trafficking to get a “toehold” in the city. “I think the entire city’s being victimized by this,” a resident told the station.

Following the report, Tampa City Council members Mike Suarez and Guido Maniscalco called for legislation targeting massage parlors. In January 2018, the council passed an ordinance that required massage parlors to obtain “bathhouse” permits, prohibited them from operating late at night, banned them employing anyone with a criminal record, and allowed Tampa police to conduct up to four random, unannounced inspections a year. Fines and jail time were mandated as punishment for violations. In August 2018, Hillsborough County passed a similar ordinance. 

The ordinances were enacted over the objections of sex workers in Tampa. “When we ‘red-line’ an industry out of our own city, we’re not getting rid of human traffickers,” Sydney Eastman, a co-founder of a Tampa group called the Sex Worker Solidarity Network, told a local radio station in 2018. “We’re just pushing them out of the city. Underground. Further away. And potentially rendering them invisible.” (Eastman died that year.)

Then, early last year, the Florida legislature passed a series of bills that require police, hotel workers, and massage parlor employees to be trained to recognize the signs of human trafficking. The bills also created a “johns” registry, similar to sex offender registries, of anyone arrested for soliciting prostitution. “This bill says to traffickers and pimps: the State of Florida is closed for business,” Senator Lauren Book, who helped write the bill, said in May. “When we curb the demand for the illegal sale and purchase of sex, we will also curb the profitability of human trafficking.”

But those ensnared in Operation Trade Secrets I and II—the majority of whom were not traffickers—point to a registry that will be composed primarily of people who pay for consensual sex. They will “have a human trafficking stigma attached to them forever,” Cain said. And since sex workers are often charged with soliciting, they will most likely end up on the registry as well.

“We’re putting our resources into surveillance and criminalization,” said Jill McCracken, a professor at the University of South Florida who researches sex work and trafficking. “I continually ask, ‘what are we doing to reduce the conditions that cause vulnerability?’ Because when someone is vulnerable, they are more at risk for trafficking and exploitation.”

Illustrations by Cameron Wray.

Sex workers also face well-funded and politically powerful anti-trafficking nonprofits like the Tampa-based U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, co-founded in 2016 by Geoffrey Rogers, a former vice president at IBM, and Kevin Malone, a retired baseball executive. According to its mission statement, the institute was “anointed by God to fight against human trafficking in America with truth and integrity.” 

The institute believes that demand for sex is at the core of the trafficking problem. “We see sex trafficking as a supply answer to a demand problem,” according to its website. “The reality is that the problem lies in the demand to purchase a human being for sex. Because the demand exists, the traffickers are filling an economic equation, and filling the supply with victims.” The institute blames “our hypersexualized society” in which “people see others as objects to be used for their own sexual gratification. Pornography is at the heart of the problem, creating a tsunami of problems in our culture that experts are only recently beginning to be able to qualify and quantify.”

Since 2018, the institute has focused on getting cities across the country, but particularly in Florida, to adopt its TraffickingFree Zone (TFZ) program. To join the TFZ, cities, counties or local businesses sign a proclamation in which they pledge that “there is a growing body of evidence that targeting sex buyers is a pragmatic, effective way to reduce demand in the commercial sex industry.” Then the city or county works with the institute to train employees to identify human trafficking. The institute also offers sample language for organizations to incorporate into their human resource policies “that are similar to zero drug tolerance policies,” Stephanie Costolo, who manages the TFZ, told The Appeal. Costolo said one consequence of such policies would be for people who patronize sex workers to lose their jobs. “If you get arrested for buying sex, [in Hillsborough County], Vegas, wherever, you don’t have a job.” So far organizations in  the Tampa area, Pasco County, Clearwater, New Port Richey, Dade City, and St. Petersburg have signed on to the program. 

“You’re taking a very critically important first step in aggressively targeting the demand that is fueling this industry within our community,” the institute’s Rogers told the St. Petersburg City Council in early January 2019. “We very much look forward to working with you over the coming months and years in order to identify what more we all can do across this community to eradicate this.”

At the council meeting, a representative from the institute said it was in talks with Hillsborough County about adopting the program. And in a February op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times ahead of the city’s mayoral election, Rogers urged the candidates to focus on human trafficking in Tampa and Hillsborough County by joining the TFZ. The Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department is already working with the institute on training. 

One part of the TFZ is a tool called an intercept bot. The bot, developed through technology from another nonprofit, Seattle Against Slavery, posts fake ads for sex online. When it receives a text from a potential client, the bot initially pretends to be a sex worker. “Then (it) reveals its identity,” Rogers wrote in a column for USA Today in March. “In an attempt to dissuade (a client) from using such sites again, it also informs him that his information may be given to law enforcement.”

The tool also scrapes phone numbers from ads placed by sex workers so the institute can send them text messages. At least one sex worker reported receiving a message stating: “Hi, my name is Natalie and I’m an advocate in the Tampa Bay area.” The institute offers sex workers help with “finding resources” like STD testing and free wellness exams, but its introductory text doesn’t disclose that it’s affiliated with the institute. Through the TFZ, the institute shares this technology with local law enforcement.

The anti-trafficking institute is poised to have a greater influence on the national approach to sex work. In October, President Trump appointed Malone to a human trafficking advisory board. After Pam Bondi retired as Florida attorney general early last year, she joined the lobbying organization Ballard Partners, and was paid $80,000 to lobby for the institute. Bondi is a longtime Trump ally; in late November, he tapped her to coordinate the White House’s communications on impeachment. 

Sex workers say full decriminalization will help them—not raids or end demand-based policies and policing targeting their clients. After she was initially arrested, Anne said police asked her if she was being trafficked and how they could help. “I told them, if you want to save me, you gotta bail me out of jail,” she said. Instead, Anne was convicted of prostitution, ordered to pay $344 in fees and sentenced to 10 days of time served. Anne said that when she was incarcerated she repeatedly asked jail staff for her bipolar disorder medication, but it was never provided. Anne was released on Dec. 12, and said she’s happy to return home to her 8-year-old daughter and to carry on with her life. “I’m a hardworking person,” she said. “I take care of my business.”