Yup. Just like on television. But, unlike tv, 48 hours later, I still trying to process the overwhelming reality of poverty, violence and hopelessness that defines a world only 20 miles away from my idyllic, privileged life.
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has a program for civilians to ride along with police officers. Through a series of events, I was invited to join a friend riding in the back of a police vehicle during an active operation. It took me a whole 1 second to reply, "YES!" Although I had no real idea what I'd agreed to, I told my kids I was heading out on a Perp Watch. To stop some perps from perping. Even though they didn't show it, I knew they were impressed.
I arrived at 4 pm at the 77th Street Precinct Station (in the South Bureau of the 4-bureau structure that defines the LAPD). The 77th covers a population of 175,000 people over 12 square miles (including Crenshaw, Gramercy Park, Hyde Park, Vermont Knolls, View Heights, Vermont Park and Morningside Park). Watts, in another name for it. A part of Los Angeles I know of in reputation only.
My girlfriend and I were met by Sergeant Valento, the newest supervisor of the Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking division. Sergeant Valento had spent years working her way up the ranks, serving as a Vice detective and supervisor of both the Juvenile and Gang detective units. Her newest group was made up of six detectives -- two of whom, we were told, were women so well-regarded in the industry for their experience in undercover field work and the psychology of victim questioning, that they led trainings for other bureaus. Tonight was their case. In a few minutes, we would be heading out on a field operation to bring in a victim off the streets and bring her "pimp" in for questioning.
The victim's mother had brought the case to the police. Her 19-year old daughter was trying to leave a life on the streets but her pimp was preventing it, using extreme violence and threats to her life. The mother feared for her daughter's safety. Violence, assault, pandering, pimping, coercion and kidnapping were listed as possible crimes being committed. If true (and if convicted), the totality of the crimes could warrant a 14 year-to-life sentence in jail.
It was just like an episode of "Law & Order." But with real humans struggling with real lives in the balance. You know, exactly like tv.
We drove in an unmarked car (an old Buick), circling the 100 blocks on Figueroa Street, looking for our victim and then, hoping to find her pimp in the act of one of the many crimes of which
he was suspected. Figueroa Street, turns out, has a well-known reputation as a major throughway for sex trafficking. "Girls" (who can range from 13 years old to their 40s and 50s) walk the streets waiting for "Johns" to solicit their services. $40 for a blowjob. $100 for sex. In a car, in a motel, down a side street. The girls are often runaways from foster care or abusive homes. They're vulnerable and easy prey. In this part of town, the majority of pimps are male gang members looking to diversify their opportunities at making money. Violating, abusing and victimizing women is easier, more profitable work than dealing drugs.
As she navigates the frustrating LA traffic, Sergeant Valento is a patient teacher walking us through the intricate world of criminal gang activity, the complex requirements of the legal process, the complexities of victim rehabilitation and relapse, and the systemic cycle of poverty and violence. She's smart, well-spoken and sympathetic to the needs of the community. She was raised by a single mother, in poverty, in Boyle Heights. She loves being a cop. When asked if she's eradicating the problem, Sergeant Valento likens her work to the frustrating game of "Whack a Mole." Take one criminal off the street, he's replaced by another. The larger fix? She's not sure there is one. But she holds out hope that the answer might lie in the deterrent of substantial criminal convictions. Big jail time punishments for pimps might dissuade others from entering the game. Make the punishment severe and maybe these men will rethink the quick money from and ease of abusing women.
I think of my 12-year old son and around whom my most current concern is the video game, "Fortnite" and how long I should allow him to play it with friends. Today, I reprimanded him for not throwing his dirty socks in the hamper and I had to remind him to pack a nectarine for camp snack. A wooden plaque hangs in his bedroom,"Work Hard. Be Nice." To him, quick money is a $30 birthday gift card from grandma.
The detectives find their victim and then, arrest her pimp. Everyone is surprised at how quick and smooth the operation went. Someone jokes that we might be good luck charms. Back at the precinct, the pimp is booked and the detectives work with the victim, to learn the truth of her story. Sounds like the perfect happy ending to a perfect episode of tv, no? I'm ready for a high-five and a celebratory glass of wine. But real life doesn't work that way. This story is far from over. The detectives have a long night ahead. Truth is, the girls don't come in off the street easily. They're quick to lie about their life and cover for their pimps' crimes. They pretend the bruises and stitches are from car accidents and not a human fist. They insist they're well-treated and loved. They view the detectives with suspicion and a little bit of disdain. Why? I ask. Now's their chance to get help, to get free. Maybe I should buy them something from the vending machine?
I'm told, in the most patient of tones, that these girls have been abused, abandoned, mistreated, manipulated, raped, tortured, violated and threatened with their life. A virtual A to Z of shit experiences. They've been branded with tattoos of their pimp's name, deprived of sleep, showers and clothes, starved and drugged. Their "Daddies" take most, if not all, of their earnings in exchange for protection. Most have no home to return to, no friends or family to accept them, no money to spend, no education to fall back on, no support network to guide them and no work experience to get them a job. They have no real access to health services or full meals or normal clothes or safe sleeping quarters. And as if healing their external wounds wasn't hard enough, they have little access to therapists, psychologists and counselors with whom to begin the process of exploring their internal ones. Yes, there are opportunities available via non-profit and charity organizations (halfway homes and placement centers) but they are complicated and with limits on how effective they can be. One of the detectives said they're targeted by pimps as recruitment centers; vulnerable girls who again fall prey to the lure of a boyfriend who promises to love them and care for them forever. And as if that wasn't enough, the very community in which they live is the very community in which their innocence died. Families live next door to gang members. Victims, next door to their captors. Everyone knows to never rat out one of their own. 'Cause retribution isn't pleasant for anyone.
My phone beeps. It's a news report on CBS' Les Moonves. Another #metoo story coming out of Hollywood. What a movement! Another set of women have found their voices, are standing up against inequality, abuse and the tyranny of bullying! YAY! Then, I look up. The two female detectives have come out of the interview room. The victim continues to insist the panicked phone call she made to her mother never happened. That she never said her pimp whipped her with a paint can as she begged to leave. As Sergeant Valento talks strategy with them, I ache for this girl and her #metoo story. I honestly cannot fathom its details. It's so far from mine. From all of ours.
At 9 pm, we get ready to leave. Sergeant Valento is gracious but it's clear we're in her hair. We ask her how she thinks the night will end? She's not sure. They'll continue to talk to the victim until she's too tired and needs to sleep. Usually, that's around 3 am. Depending upon how that goes, they might "ticket her" for the night, to keep her safe, to give her place to sleep and, if need, to give her another chance to open up in the morning. Their top priority is her safety and survival. The team's shift end officially at 4 am.
We head back to the lush green suburbs of the westside of Los Angeles. On my drive up the canyon, my phone rings and it's my 14-year old daughter calling. She's finishing up a 3-week program at the local university, steeping herself in the world of music theater. She's just finished play practice. We talk about my night, her week. As I listen to the excited lilt of her voice as she details the deliciousness of her first taste of independence (Great classes! Nice friends! Freedom to eat any food she wants in any campus cafeteria she can find!), my heart grows heavy. Less than 20 minutes away, there is a 14 year old being put out on Figureroa Street for the first or fiftieth time tonight. And there's nothing I can do to stop it.
Towards the end of our talk, my daughter hears the sadness in my voice. "Mom," she says, "At least you stopped one perp from perping tonight. Normally, we just watch tv on a Friday night."