When the story of a teenager’s exploitation at the hands of Bay Area police came to light earlier this year, we were sad and angry, but we were not surprised. We are an attorney, a counselor and nurse, and a physician, who have collectively worked for more than two decades with young people who are trafficked and exploited through the sex trade. Many of our clients and patients have told us about their disturbing encounters with law enforcement. They have affirmed that some police officers purchase sex, others offer to let individuals go in exchange for a sexual favors, and that still others have used the threat of arrest to keep our clients and patients from speaking out about the harms children and adults experience at the hands of law enforcement.
So when we learned that several Bay Area police officers coerced the young woman known as Celeste Guap, through their positions of power, into having sex with them in exchange for protection from undercover police operations and raids, we were not shocked.
What appalled and enraged us was the extent to which the Oakland Police Department (OPD) and other Bay Area law enforcement agencies were complicit in the manipulation and sexual abuse of this young woman. When a lone officer sexually assaults someone, you can call him a bad apple. But when upwards of 30 officers commit these crimes while others turn a blind eye—that’s an epidemic. These events should make us question what was going on, how it happened, and how we are going to fix it so that others are not exploited in this way again.
To start this overhaul, several changes must take place. First, the media must stop victim-blaming this young woman.
Second, we should no longer rely on the police to be the primary institution that addresses sex trafficking. We must fund victim services through community-based providers and more appropriate agencies and diversify how these services are delivered so that they are not strictly tied to law enforcement agencies.
Finally, we need to implement new policies informed by those they are designed to protect, to hold law enforcement accountable, and ensure appropriate actions are taken when there is an abuse of power.
Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words to describe a person or situation, we get it. We debated the terminology to use in this article, and discussed the ways in which the language people use to talk about human trafficking can sometimes ignore the agency and resilience of survivors. But portraying Celeste, a teenager, as a seductress that lured unsuspecting officers into bed with her? That’s not only insulting, it’s irresponsible. So journalists: do your job and find a way to accurately tell the story of what actually happened, and please stop participating in rape culture.
For the record, Celeste’s experience meets the definition of human trafficking. According to the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a human trafficking victim is a “person induced to perform a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion” or “in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” Consequently, any commercial sex acts with police officers that occurred before Celeste turned 18 clearly meet the definition of trafficking.
After she turned 18, the trafficking and exploitation didn’t stop. That law enforcement officers can choose to arrest someone like Celeste, give her information about what friends have been arrested, or tell her ahead of time to avoid a certain street because of an undercover police operation, demonstrates a gross abuse of power by the police. Such abuse of power is a form of coercion, and the officers engaged in these acts are human traffickers.
So if you’re going to label her anything, drop the criminalized term “prostitute” for the accurate legal term “human trafficking victim.” Some major media outlets have recognized the inherent contradiction of terms like “child prostitute” and “teenage sex worker.” These outlets adopted a style guide created by Rights4Girls to use the appropriate language. This should be the industry standard.
Furthermore, we find it appalling that television and print media have repeatedly used photographs and videos of Celeste. She is a victim of sexual violence. She was trafficked and raped when she was a child, and again as an adult, and should be afforded protections and basic decency.
Stop Requiring Victims to Cooperate with Law Enforcement
In the past, child victims of sex trafficking had to be arrested before they could access social services or healthcare as victims of crime. Most healthcare and social services for trafficking victims were provided in juvenile hall. A system that criminalizes victims of trafficking as a precondition to getting help, is fundamentally flawed.
Additionally, survivors of sex trafficking are still required to cooperate with law enforcement agencies in order to access victims of crimes funding, resources and services. Used as a means to obtain witness testimony in the prosecution of traffickers, it further traumatizes and victimizes those who are fearful of their traffickers, bonded to abusers, and not ready to face their exploiters in court.
Services must be victim-centered—meaning cooperation with law enforcement should not be a requirement, but rather a choice. The emphasis should be placed on community-based organizations and agencies that are equipped to address the trauma associated with exploitation. These organizations exist in the Bay Area and have been around for decades providing healthcare and specialized services for exploited and trafficked children and adults. Advocates and providers have seen tremendous value in providing services to victims in the community. They are able to maintain familial connections while seeking help, avoid being in an unknown place without meaningful relationships, and can address trauma holistically by involving family and friends in treatment and transition planning.
We recognize that law enforcement does play a role in combatting trafficking. They often do come across victims as part of patrol and during operations. When officers encounter potential victims, they are required by mandatory reporting laws to report the suspected abuse to the child protection hotline. To our knowledge, Oakland Police Officer Brendan O’Brien did not fulfill his obligation when he first encountered Celeste, then a child, who was fleeing her exploiter. Had he acted differently, Officer O’Brien could have changed the entire trajectory of this case, and the course of Celeste’s life. Also, officers should continue to focus on identifying the traffickers and purchasers who create the supply and demand for human beings.
In 2014, the California legislature appropriated $14 million to serve commercially sexually exploited and trafficked children through an interagency approach led by child welfare, the system created to serve abused, exploited, and neglected children. In 2016, an additional $5 million was added to this annual appropriation. These shifts of funding are steps in the right direction. We should also fund and build capacity of other sectors, such as community health centers, the educational system, and public health, as these are additional access points to reach this extremely vulnerable population.
What we have learned from the OPD sex crime scandal is that there are inherent dangers in using the police as the primary public agency entrusted to outreach to victims of human trafficking. We need to continue to fund and develop more community-based solutions that are prevention and intervention-based, getting at both root causes of vulnerability to being trafficked, and long-term care and support for traumatized victims.
Engage the Community in Developing a Solution
How is it that law enforcement officers’ involvement in sex trafficking has gone unnoticed for so many years? And what are we going to do to prevent another child or adult like Celeste from being harmed by the police?
First, we applaud Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley for their leadership in investigating, firing, and eventually charging many of the bad actors. We hope other cities and counties follow their lead. But more must be done.
Because many community-based providers would assert that this type of abuse hasn’t gone unnoticed, we should ask why the public hasn’t heard about it. We posit that there has never been a meaningful or transparent process to field and resolve complaints about officers abusing power. So, at a minimum, we must start there.
We urge counties and law enforcement agencies to develop a robust grievance mechanism to ensure victims of trafficking have a way to report police misconduct. Without this process, victims have no recourse against abuses of police power. We believe that survivors and organizations working with victims of trafficking should be at the table to provide meaningful input at all stages of the development of future policies. Community input and transparency will strengthen the policies and encourage the buy-in necessary for stronger victim protection and accessibility. And given the chilling effect the OPD sex crime scandal will have on victims coming forward in the future, the policies must be widely distributed and posted within communities.
Additionally, we urge county and law enforcement agencies to revisit existing policies regarding physical contact during undercover operations. To our knowledge, varying levels of physical contact between Bay Area law enforcement and individuals involved in the sex trade is allowed in order to confirm solicitation, which typically occurs during undercover operations. The rules are far from consistent and have been abused by officers. We recommend that police officers are prohibited from physically contacting suspected victims of trafficking and individuals engaged in the sex trade. Furthermore, there must be policies that allow for the immediate termination of officers who break these rules. Los Angeles County has such a policy. Alameda County does not.
No one looks good in this scandal. But if all of us, media, law enforcement, policy makers and advocates seize the opportunity, we can make long overdue changes to help some of our most vulnerable and victimized children and adults.
Kate Walker Brown is an attorney and lead of the Child Trafficking Team at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, California.
Elizabeth Sy is a registered nurse and a cofounder for Banteay Srei, a community-based organization in Oakland, California that works with young Southeast Asian women at risk of or engaged in the underground sex trade.
Kimberly Chang, MD, MPH is a family physician at Asian Health Services in Oakland, California, and cofounder and Board Member of HEAL Trafficking.
Editor’s note: Following her arrest in Florida, other media organizations published the legal name of the young woman who has called herself Celeste Guap because she is now 19-years-old. Attorneys who say they represent the young woman have also asked that her real name be used. The Express, however, is still not using her legal name because the young woman hasn’t provided us with consent to identify her. We have seen no public statement made by her asking that her real name be used. She is the survivor of multiple alleged sex crimes, some of which were committed when she was a minor.