Richmond residents, officials meet to combat human trafficking

Richmond residents, officials meet to combat human trafficking
All photos by Mike Kinney

By Mike Kinney 

Human trafficking continues to be a pervasive problem in Richmond, but that hasn’t stopped a community-wide effort to bust traffickers and provide services to victims.

On Tuesday, Richmond police Chief Bisa French and Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton joined local service providers, business owners and neighbors for the latest discussion on how the community can collectively work to reduce human trafficking in the city. The community meeting was held at Veterans Memorial Hall on 23rd Street, an area that continues to be a hotbed for human trafficking.

Human trafficking makes $150 billion dollars a year worldwide and is a new form of slavery, according to DA Becton, who cited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in saying, “What affects one of us directly, affects one of us indirectly.”

“We in law-enforcement cannot do this alone, it takes a collaboration of the community, service providers and others to stop human trafficking here in Richmond and Contra Costa County,” added Chief French.

Previous to the pandemic, local law enforcement agencies began partnering with residents, community organizations, and fellow government agencies to raise awareness about human trafficking and to provide solutions that hold pimps accountable and provide victims, some of them minors, with the services they need to escape the predation. In serving those functions, the Contra Costa County Human Trafficking Coalition provides a wealth of resources to report traffickers and support victims, including 24 hour crisis lines provided by Community Violence Solutions (1-800-670-7273) and Contra Costa Crisis Center (1-800-833-2900).

The Coalition’s efforts made headlines last year following the arrest and conviction of a 37-year-old human trafficker whose victims were as young as age 15. The investigation included support from DA investigators and prosecutors, specialized human trafficking advocates with the DA’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program, Community Violence Solutions, and International Rescue Committee, according to the DA’s Office.

News of the human trafficking problem, and the Coalition’s ongoing efforts to stop it, have been somewhat muted since the impacts of the pandemic began commanding headlines. The problem of human trafficking, however, remains front and center for neighbors. At Tuesday’s meeting, neighbors living on 24th Street in the North and East neighborhood said they witnessed acts of violence involving human trafficking and said they’ve been victims of harassment in front of their homes by pimps and johns.

Some residents advocated for more street lights on 24th Street where human trafficking occurs.

The community feedback is important, particularly when residents are connecting directly with the city’s police chief and County’s DA on this issue, according to Richmond police Lt. John Lopez, who facilitated the forum. 

While neighbors provided their feedback and input, local officials raised awareness on current issues, such as the recent state law, SB 357, which disallows a police officer from subjectively and inherently profiling people on the streets as human traffickers based upon their appearance.

RPD Crime Prevention Manager Michelle Milam promoted the value of neighborhood watch groups, which serve to “observe and report,” not to intervene. Changes to the law further compels law enforcement officials to inform community members about what information is helpful in enforcing against human trafficking while simultaneously supporting victims.

Natalie Oleas, a director with the Contra Costa Family Justice Center, further informed residents on services her center provides to victims. The Family Justice Center partners with 60 agencies to connect clients to resources.

“In order to support survivors of human trafficking, we have to partner together with the agencies and the community,” Oleas said. “Forums like this allows for those partnerships to happen.”

The community feedback and the discussion over shared solutions is important, particularly when residents are connecting directly with the city’s police chief and County’s DA on this issue, according to Richmond police Lt. John Lopez, who facilitated the forum. 

Added attorney and anti-trafficking advocate Yolanda Smith, “We need awareness events because there are many misconceptions about what human trafficking (commercial sexual exploitation) looks like.”

“Most victims were born in the US and were not kidnapped,” Smith said. “They are disproportionately African American women and girls who were preyed upon due to vulnerabilities such as prior sexual abuse, homelessness and contacts with the foster care system. It is my hope that awareness events like this one will bring about more compassion and less judgment for those who have been and are currently being sexually exploited.”