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I met 20-year-old Ariana Castellanos, who works as a counselor with Bay Area Women Against Rape, at the corner of 35th and International Boulevard in Oakland. Castellanos points out the taquerias and family-owned businesses, but she says this stretch of East Oakland known as “the track” is also a hub for sex trafficking. It’s where “you find young girls who are being exploited or are selling sex,” Castellanos said. This is also where most of her clients get arrested by Oakland police.
The public may have been shocked when news first broke that nearly 30 East Bay police officers have been accused of sexually exploiting an under-age girl who was being trafficked on city streets. But when Youth Radio interviewed a cross-section of youth service providers, we found that nobody in that community was surprised.
“Everyone has long known,” said Amba Johnson, who directs the youth homeless center, Dreamcatcher, in Alameda County. “The fact that the whole country is like, ‘Oh my god what’s happening with the Oakland Police Department?’ is the most disingenuous response I’ve ever heard of in my life.”
Johnson estimates about half the youth staying at the county shelter at any given time have been sexually exploited–a bigger number than what she remembers from just three years ago. Cops have power over the people they police, Johnson said, and “there is a percentage of police that take advantage of their most vulnerable populations, which is the girls.”
Christopher Watson is another advocate for sexually exploited minors in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s been called to the scene after girls are arrested, and he said, the case against OPD goes deeper than a few bad cops. “Obviously when you have a system setup that criminalizes the act of being sexually assaulted, like no matter how good the people are, the system is already flawed, and so you’re gonna have problems,” he said.
Leaders in the anti-trafficking movement stress that most East Bay cops are doing a good job and see their goal as rescuing girls from sexual exploitation. Police officers will arrest girls for loitering and solicitation, because they see that as the easiest way to get girls off the street and into services.
But despite best intentions, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told a frustrated group of service providers and parents: by the time a girl who’s being trafficked encounters police, the support system for that girl has already broken down.
“Every institution has failed these girls before they get to that point,” she exasperatedly told attendees at this month’s meeting of the Alameda County task force on sexually exploited minors. Police misconduct was the main focus of the meeting. Youth Radio was the only media outlet in the room.
“I welcome your ideas about how I can possibly better communicate my anger, my disgust, my absolute commitment to bring the harshest consequences possible to the people who have abused the public’s trust,” Mayor Schaaf said.
The community members at the meeting demanded prosecution for the officers involved, and wanted to know where the case stands, but Mayor Schaaf said state law prohibits her from sharing police personnel matters with the public.
For at least five years, Oakland has been seen as a leader when it comes to fighting sex trafficking, which makes allegations against the department especially troubling for officers. Captain Leronne Armstrong of the Oakland Police Department said, “Everybody in our community is disappointed….And so we really take this as an opportunity to begin to rebuild trust. ….I think we can’t lose sight of what our responsibility is, as a police department.”
With all eyes on Oakland city officials, youth advocates are concerned about how this scandal will impact the vulnerable girls who are out on Oakland’s track.
Listen to the extended interview with Christopher Watson, who shares his account of his encounters with sexually exploited minors and how allegations of sexual exploitation aren’t limited to just police officers.