In a cruel irony, Phoenix police are arresting alleged victims of sex trafficking ahead of Super Bowl LVII, in an echo of the nefarious Project ROSE.
Despite more than a decade of research, reports, editorials, magazine articles and even police accounts debunking the odious myth that the Super Bowl is a magnet for sex trafficking, this zombie lie remains catnip to local politicians, police and media ahead of Super Bowl LVII, to be held on Feb. 12 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona.
But occasionally a little truth sneaks through the miasma of misinformation, as is the case with a recent segment from Fox 10 Phoenix, “‘Trapped’: Inside the world of sex trafficking in Arizona as Super Bowl approaches.”
Though Fox 10’s report bolsters the long-disproven Super Bowl-sex trafficking hoax, it inadvertently reveals a disturbing truth: the Phoenix Police Department (PPD) has been regularly arresting unknown numbers of adults whom the PPD asserts are possible victims of sex trafficking, allowing anti-trafficking groups to proselytize them while in custody.
If that sounds familiar, it should, because about 10 years ago, the PPD was involved in a similar, highly-controversial program with ASU’s School of Social Work called Project ROSE, which was designed by Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an ASU researcher with an admitted bias against sex work.
As part of Project ROSE (which stood for “Reaching Out to the Sexually Exploited”), Phoenix police arrested individuals suspected of violating misdemeanor prostitution ordinances, transporting them to a “command post” at Bethany Bible Church in Phoenix, where they were given a stark choice: complete a six-month diversion program run by Catholic Charities and avoid prosecution, or have charges filed against them.
The ACLU of Arizona also criticized the program and came to the defense of transgender icon Monica Jones, a student at ASU’s School of Social Work who was arrested for “walking while trans” and prosecuted for refusing to participate in ROSE’s diversion program.
The PPD later quietly canned Project ROSE. But what the Fox 10 segment documents certainly sounds like a ROSE by another name.
In the piece, Fox 10 reporter Justin Lum participates in a ride-along with Sgt. Tim Smith of the PPD’s “Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit” as Smith patrols a stretch of 27th Ave. between Northern Ave. and Indian School Road.
Smith tells Lum:
“Predominantly, the bulk of the activity is at night. The activity is women . . . out here walking the street, and we know that they’re here along with their traffickers that have frequently brought them here from local areas but also out of state . . . We’ll notice that they’re dressed to attract, that there’s a line of traffic stopped that they’re waving and flagging down motorists.”
Lum then reports that,
“Once an undercover officer makes a ‘deal’ confirming prostitution is taking place, a marked patrol car arrives and police can arrest who they believe is a sex trafficking victim. That girl is taken to a command post where anti-trafficking advocates provide outreach.”
Stacey Sutherland, program director with the Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network (AATN) tells Lum that the evening has been a success.
“We have encountered 18 potential victims of human trafficking tonight and we have had 100% engage in some form of victim services,” Sutherland says. “That can range from detox to housing to bus passes, gift cards, talking with survivors, looking at options to exit the life.”
Lum adds that “After help is offered, the girls are free to go, but unfortunately, it’s likely they’ll be encountered again.”
Both Lum and Smith seem oblivious to the irony of their assumptions about the women the PPD is detaining. If they are potential victims, then the PPD’s arrests of these women on suspicion of violating minor prostitution offenses is obscene.
Responding to my inquiries about the Fox 10 report, PPD spokesperson Sgt. Melissa Soliz explained via email that, “On nights such as the operation you referenced with the reporter doing a ride-along, if the person does not want services or resources, she is free to walk away without any citations.”
Soliz added, “During different operations, citations and/or arrests might be made,” later adding, “Each case is different, but we do lead with resources and services.”
In a follow-up email, I asked about the similarity between this current operation and Project ROSE.
Phoenix Police Sgt. Robert Scherer emailed me back, claiming that the PPD “has not participated in Project ROSE for nearly a decade.”
Scherer also wrote:
The Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit contacts and detains individuals after probable cause is established for a criminal offense. The individual is transported to a command post where the investigation continues. If this contact does not result in a felony violation, the individual is released from police custody.
A number of service and resource groups including the one you mentioned, reach out independently to those released and offers the available resources. This contact is voluntary and void of Phoenix Police participation. Whether or not the individual accepts the resources has no bearing on the police investigation.
PPD has yet to respond to additional questions, such as how these “resource groups” would even know about the PPD’s arresting victims without coordination between the police and organizations like AATN.
Arlene Mahoney, executive director of the Phoenix-based Southwest Recovery Alliance, a group that advocates for “harm reduction” strategies as opposed to law enforcement solutions to illicit drug use and other societal issues, was critical of the PPD arresting potential sex trafficking victims under the guise of helping them.
“If they were arresting somebody who was the victim of sex trafficking, [the arrestees] are already experiencing trauma,” she said. “And then, because of the way police treat people, maybe that’s not the best way to ‘rescue’ someone — to have cops go in and arrest them.”
Mahoney is part of a collective of sex worker organizations that has set up a website, stoptheraids.org, to denounce police violence against sex workers and oppose the Arizona governor’s office costly promulgation of the Super Bowl-sex trafficking myth.
The collective plans a protest on Feb. 6 outside downtown Phoenix’s Footprint Center, at the same time that the NFL will be hosting a public media event, “Super Bowl LVII Opening Night,” with players and coaches in attendance.
Concerning the Fox 10 report, Mahoney said she found it “creepy” that the Phoenix police had invited the press along “to witness the police profiling and arresting a sex trafficking victim,” calling it, “negligent,” and saying that it made the police “complicit in their exploitation . . . by making a spectacle of their arrest for the media.”
Similarly, the ACLU of Arizona was not amused by Phoenix police arresting people they supposedly want to help.
Jared Keenan, the ACLU of Arizona’s legal director, issued the following statement:
“By criminalizing sex work, police, prosecutors, and elected officials have created many of the harmful conditions they now bemoan. Services should be available to everyone that needs them without threat of arrest, prosecution, and potential violence that comes with police interaction.”
Bottom line: if the adults you are arresting are victims, maybe you shouldn’t be arresting them.
When You Assume…
Lum writes, “The link between prostitution and sex trafficking is twisted – yet intertwined.”
In reality, they are very different things.
By law, “sex trafficking” involves either children engaged in commercial sex, or adults induced into the sex trade through force, fraud or coercion. Either way, it’s a heinous felony with serious penalties.
Prostitution, by contrast, is usually charged as a misdemeanor, and most Americans believe it should be decriminalized. Prostitution is illegal in most parts of the U.S., but many forms of sex work are perfectly legal, including striptease, porn, phone sex, cam work, escorts, dominatrixes, and so on.
But the Fox 10 report does not acknowledge the complexity of sex work. Nor does it accept that adult sex workers can have agency and willingly participate in the sex trade, whether licit or illicit.
Mahoney, who says she has engaged in sex work, challenged both the “saviorism” displayed by law enforcement and the very idea of trying to force a diversion program on people.
“It signals that there’s something wrong with sex work inherently,” she said. “And there’s not. It’s work, it’s labor. You don’t have to ‘fix’ anybody, they shouldn’t be arrested.”
If it’s just about offering street-based sex workers social services, obviously that can be done without arrests, which Mahoney regards in this context as a form of “violence.”
Similarly, Mahoney is critical of the way Fox 10 suggests that major sporting events boost sex trafficking.
At one point, Lum asks, “With major sporting events coming to Phoenix on the same weekend – Super Bowl and the WM Phoenix Open – does this issue grow?”
Lum quotes an anonymous sex trafficking survivor named “Mary,” who says that major sporting events are “definitely a playing field for the pimps,” saying it’s like “Christmas to them.”
But “Mary” goes on to describe some forms of sex work that are legal.
“It’s gonna be the most lucrative month for workers and strippers and it’s gonna be a lot of private parties,” she says.
By contrast, Mahoney points out that “workers and stripping” are not “criminalized labor.” Nor is it criminal for a stripper to entertain a private party.
Lum has a tough time finding statistics to back up the claim that sex trafficking — a subset of human trafficking, which includes both forced labor and forced sex for money — is widespread in Arizona.
In the end, he relies on stats from the Human Trafficking Hotline, which is a tipline and mainly reflects how many people dial the number.
As for the suggestion that the Super Bowl leads to a spike in sex trafficking, there is no empirical evidence to demonstrate that assertion.
Just look at the last time the Super Bowl was in Phoenix: 2015.
The FBI’s human trafficking report for 2015 lists 6 offenses for Arizona: 5 involving commercial sex acts, and one involving involuntary servitude.
In 2014, the FBI’s human trafficking report lists 15 offenses for Arizona, all involving commercial sex acts.
Granted, there’s nothing truer than that old adage about “lies, damn lies and statistics.”
Hypothetically, using these stats, you could make the argument that the Super Bowl actually has the reverse effect than all those pushing the Super Bowl/sex trafficking panic would have you believe.
But that would be to fall victim to the same fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc that the government and its paid allies in what some call the “anti-trafficking industrial complex” use to promote their agenda.
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