Human trafficking, prostitution surging on streets of South LA during COVID-19 shutdowns

As a result of the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions forcing the closures of strip clubs and other adult entertainment industries, the Los Angeles Police Department tells FOX 11 that human trafficking and prostitution have exploded on the streets of South LA, and they brought FOX 11 along to show us how bad the problem has become.

FOX 11 joined LAPD’s Human Trafficking Task Force on one evening and what we witnessed was startling.

Up and down Figueroa Street, on almost every block, were multiple prostitutes, many of whom appeared to be very young girls and women, standing on street corners without any pants on, sometimes with a pimp watching them from a close distance.

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"Some of these girls are as young as 12, 12, 14-years-old, and we’re trying to get them off the streets," said Captain Scot Williams, commanding officer of LAPD’s 77th Street division.

"There are several who are forced into these traits by pimps and violent gang members who are looking to exploit them for their own personal financial gain," Williams said.

LAPD invited FOX 11 to observe as they used undercover officers to pose as prostitutes in an effort to make arrests of Johns.

One man we witnessed being arrested was on probation for lewd acts with a minor under the age of 14, according to LAPD.

Many of the girls FOX 11 saw were walking around in g-strings and high heels, while cars constantly pulled up alongside them to speak with them.

"The trend I’m seeing is the girls are getting younger and younger," said one undercover detective who has worked vice for 20 years. "We have gotten as young as 11-years-old out here."

The detective says pimps have gotten increasingly aggressive, and the girls are in danger.

"They are being forced to make a certain amount of money for the pimp, and if they don’t, there are consequences," she said.

"Physically getting beat up, tortured, curling iron burns, burns with cigarettes, we’ve seen it all. The idea that prostitution is a victimless crime is just false," Captain Williams said. "There are girls that are being forced into this trade out on the streets who are being victimized by violent pimps, and then again by the men who are looking to take advantage of their services."

FOX 11 watched as LAPD arrested numerous prostitutes up and down the Figueroa corridor. The women were brought to LAPD’s 77th Street police station, where they were processed while officer Joseph Marrone tried to reason with them, including one who said she was going to school to be a nurse.

"Ladies, you’re so young and you seem intelligent and articulate, if you’re going to school, is this the way to get a job?" he asked.

Marrone told FOX 11 he wanted the prostitutes to see him as a human, not someone looking to get them in trouble.

"What I’m trying to do is just become more of a human to them, not a police officer or authority figure," he said. "They do have a hard exterior, they’ve been lied to their whole lives, they’ve been abused, most of them, for multiple years, they have very hard outer shells, but the inside is soft."

LAPD then brought in social workers from the nonprofit Journey Out, which helps victims of sexual exploitation.

One of the workers was a former prostitute herself.

"I’ve been in the same position you are now, there’s no judgment whatsoever," she said.

"The police can’t fix this overnight, this has been going on for many years, it takes the community, it takes politicians, it takes everyone saying enough is enough, I want something changed," Marrone said.

Newly-elected L.A. District Attorney George Gascon recently announced his office will not pursue misdemeanor prostitution charges. His office tells FOX 11 that prosecuting prostitution clearly hasn’t worked, and they will instead focus on going after Johns and pimps, as well as using a "modern" strategy to break up human trafficking rings through targeted investigations.

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