Oakland, CA

Tactics Used

Buyer Arrests
Reverse stings
Identity Disclosure
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Letters
Cameras
Web stings
License suspension
Employment Loss
IT Based Tactics

Oakland is a city of approximately 391,000 residents, located just east of San Francisco on the San Francisco Bay. While there are areas of affluence, most of the city can be described as working class; in 2007, 17% of city residents lived below the poverty line. The city’s economy has been particularly hard hit in the past decade, creating the conditions for prostitution and sex trafficking to flourish. Budget cuts have also forced law enforcement to triage available resources and limited nonprofits’ and community organizations’ ability to secure funding for anti-prostitution initiatives. Oakland’s location along interstate transportation routes, its reputation as a major seaport, and proximity to San Francisco has spurred the expansion of its commercial sex market. The presence of street gangs and an active drug trafficking market have further complicated the issue. Prostituted women and girls have been targeted in homicides, and at least one serial killer of prostituted persons was active in the city.

Reverse Stings

In response to such serious and persistent problems, Oakland residents and local law enforcement have employed a range of tactics to identify, apprehend, and deter sex buyers. The Oakland Police Department began conducting street-level reverse stings in the mid-1970s. In February 1975, following an OPD sex buyer sting, an Oakland judge ruled that, “it was unconstitutional to treat prostitution customers different from prostitutes.” The case was the culmination of a suit brought against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), alleging discriminatory enforcement of prostitution laws. In previous years, city sex buyers were issued citations and ordered to appear for STD screening within a week of arrest; prostituted women, in contrast, were taken into custody and “quarantined” (i.e. forced to remain in custody until the results of their STD screenings were available). Since the ruling, arrested sex buyers have been forced to submit to the same booking and health screening procedures required of prostituted women.

Since the mid-1970s, Oakland has deployed street-level reverse stings on a regular basis. In their efforts, police have engaged in discussions with local residents to determine “problem areas” to be targeted in undercover operations. While their frequency has varied, OPD stings are generally conducted 2-4 times per month. When contacted for the National Assessment, the OPD reported that individual operations typically last 5-6 hours, and result in an average of 14-20 arrests. Sex buyer sting teams consist of one decoy, approximately eight officers in supporting roles, and several vehicles (usually two cruisers, two unmarked autos, and one “paddy wagon” or van). Two unmarked cars are usually parked within half a block of the decoy, each containing undercover officers who maintain constant sightlines for security purposes. Two cruisers, each containing two officers, are used for “takedowns” and arrests following a signal from the female officer. The two cruisers emerge from hiding and park near the sex buyer’s vehicle, place him in handcuffs, and escort him to a paddy wagon or van for transport to jail. Another officer will drive the arrested man’s vehicle to a staging area or directly to a storage lot where it is impounded. Oakland will sometimes field relatively large teams to conduct reverse stings, with two or three decoys and over 20 officers in supporting roles.

The operations are relatively costly in Oakland, due to the use of overtime to pay officers in addition to the large number of officers per operation. The reverse sting team crews cost about $7.5-9K per vice operation; about twice the cost of many other cities that do not use overtime and require fewer officers. When asked, the OPD has stated that overtime is often necessary as city police have too much other work during the day. They have reported significant safety concerns with using fewer officers; in the past, the OPD has experienced a few “close calls” wherein the female decoy was reportedly at risk of being kidnapped. To finance reversals, the city has at times relied upon grants (such as Weed and Seed) to supplement or support operations.

Auto Seizure

In 1997, the Oakland PD began seizing male sex buyers’ cars to curb a reported increase in “commuter criminal” arrests (e.g. suburban men who enter Oakland with the principle intent of patronizing a prostituted woman). Utilizing a city ordinance, officers began confiscating the vehicles of individuals arrested for prostitution-related offenses. Offenders were issued a “receipt”, and given 10 days to appeal the seizure in Alameda County’s Superior Court. Those who were not granted an appeal permanently forfeited the vehicle to the county. Between 1997 and 1999, the Oakland City District Attorney reported that the city had seized and impounded a total of 350 vehicles, over 60% of which belonged to out-of-towners. While the majority of offenders were reportedly able to recover their vehicles following appeal, the majority were forced to pay the city an average of 20% of the car’s value, plus towing and storage fees.

In July 2007, the California Supreme Court ruled that city seizure ordinances violated preexisting state law. The ruling does not prevent police from towing vehicles used for solicitation, however, as such towing(s) “are covered under the state’s Vehicle Code.”

Geographic Exclusion Zones (SOAP Orders)

Once convicted of solicitation, an Oakland sex buyer will be subject to SOAP (or Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution) orders, barring him from parts of the city known for commercial sex sales. A convicted sex buyer must avoid these areas, dubbed geographic exclusion zones, unless it is understood and agreed that he has a legal right to be there (e.g., his place of business is there). In these instances, an offender may be permitted in the vicinity during hours appropriate to his/her legal right (e.g., 9AM-5PM). To ensure that geographic exclusion zones are enforced, the OPD produces an updated list of all offenders currently subject to SOAP orders and distributes them to city police on a monthly basis. If officers see a convicted sex buyer in an exclusion area, they may pull up an electronic version of the current list using MDTs in police cars. While most patrol officers know the “key players” on their beat, the list includes arrest photos that may be scanned and sorted by geographic area. When contacted for the National Assessment, the OPD reported that over 300 individuals were included in the department’s last SOAP list.

Public Education/Awareness Campaigns

Oakland is divided into 57 community policing beats that are organized into neighborhood crime councils. The police have made presentations at town halls. They have also organized education and awareness meetings with local hotels/motels and organized them into a Yahoo chat group, to encourage discussion among business owners and facilitate reports of suspicious activity to law enforcement. To this end, the OPD has established and distributed an informal protocol for business owners who suspect prostitution activity in the vicinity. If suspected, officers implore business owners to record a description of the prostituted woman/women, pimps/sex traffickers, sex buyers, and vehicles involved, as well as the times and locations where the activity was seen. All descriptions should then be relayed to police through the city’s non-emergency tip line. Such reports have been critical because, according to the OPD, those engaged in illegal activity frequently disperse before officers arrive.

Dear John Letters

In mid-2011, police further empowered residents by beginning a “Dear John” campaign in collaboration with residents of the city’s San Antonio neighborhood. Members of the community were “taught to identify and [record] the license plate numbers and state of origin of cars driven by people who appear to be soliciting [prostituted women].” Residents were then told they could submit the information anonymously to police, or utilize the East Bay Youth Center (EBYC) or Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) as intermediaries. Police agreed to then process the report and mail a letter to the individual, noting that “they were seen in an area of high prostitution and that such activity is illegal and unacceptable to local residents.” Each letter includes the following statement: Prostitution is not a victimless crime and is associated with kidnapping, human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children. These are grave concerns to the City and city residents. A full text copy of Oakland’s form letter can be found HERE.

Neighborhood Action

In recent years, community leaders and local residents have expanded the city’s anti-prostitution efforts with their own demand-driven initiatives. Much of the work has centered on increasing assistance to and recovery operations for children and teenagers involved in the Oakland sex trade. Domestic minor sex trafficking is a major issue in the city, and residents have taken note. By late December 2012, the city’s Family Justice Center had reportedly processed 19,000 cases of human trafficking, many of them involving the sexual exploitation of minors.

To address the issue, city residents have organized several town hall discussions, protests and rallies to demand harsher penalties for traffickers and sex buyers and greater aid to victims. In 2011, neighborhood groups and community members joined forces to erect a billboard targeting sex buyers along an area of International Boulevard notorious for street prostitution. It includes a phone number to report suspected underage prostitution, and includes the following inscription: Here to buy sex? STOP IT. What if she was your daughter? We are mothers here. And we WILL report you.

Surveillance Cameras

Currently, Oakland police are trying to institute legislation mandating that hotels and motels have surveillance cameras in their lobby. Hotels/motels have to renew their business permits periodically; to facilitate the installation of security cameras, the OPD and city officials have considered reducing the permit fee, but formal changes to legislations have yet to be made. Should cameras be installed, officers argue they can reduce prostitution activity by deterring individuals from soliciting sex in monitored areas, and increasing the chances of conviction for offenders (by providing video evidence). Despite this, many motel and hotel owners continue to oppose the idea. When asked, these individuals most often state they are afraid of losing revenue and facing closure, and are concerned about retaliation from the prostitution rings, something some hotels face “on a daily basis.”

Disclosure of Identities

To deter sex buyers, the OPD has released the names and other identifying information (ages, cities of residence, mugshots) of sex buyers since the mid-1980s. Local officials and law enforcement ramped up their “shaming” effort in June 2014, when the city announced it had launched a website to publicize the identities of men arrested for attempting to procure or purchase sex in Oakland. The site, Enough – Putting an End to Sex Trafficking in Oakland, also contains links and other resources for local residents who wish to learn more about or report a suspected case of human trafficking. The site will be updated on a biweekly basis with photos of recent arrestees, and contains the following disclaimer:

THIS IS A PUBLIC SAFETY ANNOUNCEMENT

The individuals shown below have been arrested and charged. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The information provided below is intended to keep our community informed about the individuals who have been arrested and charged for prostitution-related offenses.

Employment Loss:

Loss of employment is also a consequence of buying sex in the city. For example, in 2006, a former Oakland Fire Department lieutenant was placed on administrative leave after being arrested during a street-level reverse sting operation. The former lieutenant was one of 10 men arrested on suspicion of soliciting an act of prostitution in a sting operation known as Beat Feet. According to authorities, the former lieutenant, in addition to the other arrested sex buyers, had their vehicles seized. City officials considered Beat Feet an important deterrent in reducing prostitution and sex trafficking, as well as violence associated with such crimes. In 2016, the Oakland Police Department sent letters of intent to fire four Oakland police officers as the result of a high profile investigation. Investigators discovered that in addition to attempted sexual assault, some of these officers went into law enforcement databases for personal reasons, helped people evade arrest for prostitution, lied to investigators, and failed to report allegations of sexual contact between a minor and an Oakland police officer. “Dozens” of current and former officers were investigated after the prostituted woman told investigators that officers from numerous Bay Area police agencies who had solicited commercial sex from the her in exchange for money and/or inside information about upcoming prostitution stings. Further, she alleged that in a few instances, she was underage. The investigation implicated officers from Oakland, Livermore, Richmond, the Alameda and Contra Costa Sheriff’s Departments, amongst other local agencies. It led to lawsuits against the cities of Oakland and RichmondFour Richmond officers were implicated in the scandal out of the 11 who were investigated, and three were fired. Additionally, a former sheriff’s deputy from Contra Cost Sheriff’s Department resigned from his position as a result of being accused of soliciting the woman when she was a minor for sex. In September of 2016, the former Contra Costa Sheriff’s deputy and two Oakland police officers were charged with felony offenses of sexually exploiting a minor.

Buyer Arrests:

Sex buyers have also been arrested as the result of unrelated investigations, traffic stops, or through citizen reports to police. For example, in the fall of 2008, 32 people were arrested in connection with what officials described as a prostitution network of more than a dozen local homes and businesses in the Oakland area. The investigation began with a tip from a local resident and grew to use the resources of 120 deputies, officers and agencies. In addition to arrests, authorities seized $50,000 in cash, froze another $200,000 in assets and seized 15 cars, of which seven of them were high-end luxury vehicles used to operate the businesses. According to officials, the investigation was focused on apprehending sex buyers, sex traffickers, and business owners. During one of the twelve establishments in which officials executed a search warrant, Alameda County sheriff’s investigators took over the business – using undercover female officers as decoys – and arrested nine male sex buyers.

IT Based Tactic

In 2016, the Alameda County’s H.E.A.T. Watch began implemented citizen cyber patrols. These types of patrols are a citizen-led variation on the web-based reverse sting where male citizens organize cyber patrols and use their technological abilities to prevent buying before law enforcement gets involved. The citizen-activists create a decoy online ad and when buyers respond and provide their information, the cyber patrol sends video clips, texts, and links to websites that educate the prospective buyer about the negative consequences of his actions. Sometimes the cyber activists participate in a scripted phone call with the prospective sex buyer. Cyber patrols in Alameda County are made possible through law enforcement’s collaboration with the EPIK Project. EPIK was founded in 2012 in response to the heinous reality of sex trafficking in the United States and use technology to disrupt the buying of sex at the point of sale. Functioning as a “highly trained and sophisticated neighborhood watch program”, EPIK provide law enforcement with specific information related to the illegal activity of prostitution and sex trafficking. EPIK seeks to mobilize male allies to disrupt the commercial sex market by equipping them to confront the roots of exploitation and encouraging them to effectively collaborate within the broader anti-trafficking movement. EPIK has been implemented in California’s Alameda County’s H.E.A.T Watch, a five-point program designed to combat sex trafficking. Law enforcement officials use a decoy website advertising for-purchase sex which result in the site getting between 15,000 and 40,000 views a month. This translates into 3,000 to 5,000 clicks a month. The site collects potential sex buyers’ IP addresses, and alerts them of both the illegality of their actions and the fact that the DA’s office prosecutes sex buyers. In some instances, the decoy site connects the potential sex buyer to an EPIK Project volunteer. Additionally, Operation Big Sister, a nonprofit organization based in Iceland, has proposed a similar concept to that of EPIK, but seek to enable anyone, anywhere in the world with internet access, to be “a Big Sister.” The city of Oakland and Alameda County offered to be the platform’s test pilot sites for the project.

In 2016, the Alameda County CEASE Network (Northern California CEASE Network) and the City of Oakland, in partnership with local volunteers, created an online tool called Report John, that allows individuals to report the license plate numbers of cars pulling over on streets that are synonymous with sex buying. The initiative grew out of a grassroots movement started by the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), an Oakland-based community-building nonprofit that works with youth in low-income neighborhoods. Many of the nonprofit’s clients didn’t feel comfortable reporting sex buyers directly to the police; therefore, the center became an intermediary, forwarding reports of suspected sex buying to law enforcement officials. To ensure that all reporters remained anonymous, in September of 2016, the Alameda County DA’s Office and the City of Oakland brought ReportJohn.org online. When a report is made, information is shared with the lieutenant of Oakland Police’s Vice/Child Exploitation Unit, where it’s cross-referenced to a database.

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey and Interviews (2012)

Reverse Stings:

Disclosure of Identities:

“Dear John” Letters:

Auto Seizure:

Cameras:

Neighborhood Action:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

IT Based Tactic:

Sex Buyer Arrests:

Sex Buyer Fired and/or Resigned Due to Arrest:

State California
Type City
Population 401489
Location
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