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How Small Changes To The Built Environment Could Help Curb Human Trafficking In The San Fernando Valley

A photo from a Human Trafficking Task Force arrest of "a career pimp" on the Sepulveda Corridor on January 23. (Photo courtesy of the LAPD Valley Bureau via Facebook)
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For decades, a long stretch of Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys dotted with strip malls and motels has been infamous for prostitution and human trafficking.

"I'm a walker, and when I go on my morning walks, I'll see four or five girls just parading around the corner," Don Schultz, a man who lives two blocks from that section of Sepulveda, told the L.A. Times in 2014. "It's not uncommon for me to see traffic tie-ups with the johns trying to pick up the prostitutes."

"I was an investigator, I was a vice sergeant, and now I'm the vice lieutenant," Lt. Marc Evans, who oversees all of vice operations for the San Fernando Valley, told LAist. "And I don't know why this area has attracted this problem of prostitution. But it's been here for decades. I've talked to old-time members of the community; they say it's been happening for fifty years,"

But now, a new sheriff of sorts is in town: Councilwoman Nury Martinez. The only woman on the L.A. City Council, Martinez's district includes Van Nuys, Sun Valley, and Panorama City. Since taking office in 2013, she has made fighting sex trafficking, particularly in her district, a signature issue.

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"I grew up in this area, so I can tell you I’ve always seen girls lined up on Sepulveda Boulevard, Lankershim or San Fernando Road. The only thing that has changed is the girls are getting younger and younger and younger," the councilwoman told KPCC in August. Martinez was pivotal in creating the LAPD Valley Bureau's Human Trafficking Task Force - established in October 2015 to specifically address the areas along Sepulveda and Lankershim boulevards. In the summer of 2016, Martinez secured a $1 million budget allocation to continue funding the Task Force.


Nury Martinez (Photo via Facebook)
Beyond the allocation of resources, the past few years has seen a fundamental cultural shift in how the LAPD deals with sex crimes—and who the department chooses to prosecute."Our human trafficking task force focuses extensively on johns," Lt. Evans, who runs the Human Trafficking Task Force, explained to LAist. "[Previously], we would arrest girls over and over and over, and at some point you have to question 'Are we re-victimizing a victim?'" The ratio has flipped since the city put emphasis on prosecuting pimps and patrons. And, instead viewing the women as potential victims who are booked on a case-by-case basis, they are often referred to nonprofit groups that provide services.

According to Evans, the task force has transitioned to "maybe a three-to-one ratio, where we arrest johns three times more often than the girls engaged in prostitution, which is a change in culture for enforcement."

Though increasingly touted, this approach is a break not just from traditional LAPD protocol, but from traditional protocol across the country. "Until recently, most jurisdictions in the U.S. have focused their energy on arresting prostituted women," Charlotte Alter explained in a 2015 feature for Time. According to Department of Justice records cited by Time, more than 43,000 women were arrested for prostitution-related offenses in 2010, whereas just over 19,000 men were arrested, and the latter figure includes johns, pimps, and male sex workers.

"Instead of [prosecuting the women], we're focusing on the johns and the pimps and the human traffickers who are compelling these girls to engage in prostitution much of the time," Evans said. "'Pimp' and 'human trafficker', there are some technical differences, but they're largely the same type of individual," Evans said, adding that many of the pimps are "hard-core gang members" who often come to the Sepulveda Corridor from other parts of the city.

"This whole thing that we're doing with the Human Trafficking Task Force is quite different than traditional vice enforcement," Evans said. But the task force's innovations extend beyond whom they choose to prosecute.

With the councilwoman's support, the task force joined forces last year with a team of researchers from Cal State Northridge to better understand the environmental factors that contribute to the concentration of human trafficking and prostitution in this area of the San Fernando Valley. On Thursday, Dr. Henrik Minassians joined the councilwoman to release findings from a study aimed at making adjustments to the Corridor's built environment in order to curb human trafficking. Minassians' report, coauthored with fellow CSUN faculty Dr. David Lopez, identified numerous locations where the trimming of trees, the installation of additional street lighting, and other changes could make a tangible impact.


(Click map to expand)

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The study of how architectural and environmental design can be applied to crime prevention dates back to the early 1970s. However, according to Minassians, a professor of urban planning, there has been very little, if any, research devoted specifically to how the man-made landscape affects human trafficking.

In 2013, the city of Los Angeles converted more than 140,000 of the city's street lights to LED fixtures - the world's largest such replacement project to date. According to the Bureau of Street Lighting, the much-lauded swap cut energy consumption by 60%, and saved the city more than $7 million in annual electricity costs. But it also had an unlikely drawback. Though the LED lights are brighter than the old CFL bulbs, the LEDs are also more direct. "With the CFL rays, the scope of their angle was wider, so they overlapped," Minassians explained. "Even though LEDs are stronger lights, they are a lot narrower, so they create darker spots [in between them]."

Minassians and his students looked at around 15,000 street lights in South L.A., along with the incident locations of crimes, and found that most crimes occurred in the distance between two light poles, where the new, environmentally-efficient LED rays left somewhat of a dark spot. Six months into their study, Minassians and Lopez presented these findings, which is how Martinez and LAPD Valley Bureau Deputy Chief Robert Green got wind of the research and decided to bring it to the Sepulveda Corridor. It's "a perfect storm" for potential positive change, Evans said.

Minassians' own work with the LAPD began three and a half years ago when an officer from South L.A.'s 77th Division approached a colleague, Dr. Lopez, about researching innovative strategies to deal with the issues of human trafficking and prostitution.

Evans, who has been on the force for more than twenty years, was initially "skeptical" of the concept that crime locations could be so tied to environmental factors. "I sat and listened to the findings of the study [from South L.A.]," he recalled, "and they were giving numbers of how many crimes were committed in this particular area and of those crimes, how many were committed in areas of darkness. I thought 'This is ridiculous, I can't believe it,'" he said. "But when I started to hear the numbers and see how significant the findings were, I became a believer of it," Evans continued.

In order to study the environmental design factors contributing to prostitution—and by extension, human trafficking—in the Sepulveda Corridor, Minassians and his team first had to understand where prostitution was occurring. They began by following the trail of used condoms.

According to Minassians, residents would regularly call in to the councilwoman's office to complain about condoms strewn around the neighborhood and in front of their homes. The office would then log the locations where condoms were found. "They were able to give us the addresses of those locations, and we specifically visited every one of those sites," Minassians explained. They also performed so-called "grounded research" in the field, where they would "show up late at night" and observe street activities from a distance to note where they were occurring.


(Click map to expand)

"We looked at what the commonalities, or similarities, were between the areas, and how the area is being used," Minassians explained. "By following and looking at this data, we already had started constructing some form of specific behavioral activity as an attractor and generator of crime within the community. That's how we then started coming up with recommendations like tree trimming, adding lights, and changing [the] directions of the streets."

Most of the team's findings follow the lines of common sense: darkness provides cover for criminal activities, as does isolation. Even though prostitution in the area far outdated the new LED lights, the Sepulveda Corridor was still plagued by the same problems documented in South L.A. Areas of darkness exacerbate existing problems. Overgrown trees also created areas with little to no visibility. Minassians and his team also advocate changing the traffic patterns on some of the streets that have long been magnets for prostitution as a means of discouraging criminal activity. Adding street signs that prohibit turns (except for local access) in areas where johns are known to circle the block to pick up women would make that act a traffic violation, thereby providing an added disincentive for the behavior.


From left: Dr. Henrik Minassians, LAPD Valley Bureau Deputy Chief Bob Green and Councilwoman Nury Martinez at Thursday's press conference on Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys.
In total, the team identified 35 to 40 locations where installation of additional street lights would make a positive impact; 9 locations where trees must be trimmed, as well as a host of other environmental factors from physical barriers, local businesses fostering illegal activity, and abandoned or neglected areas. At Thursday's press conference, Martinez announced over $780,000 in funding to start the work immediately. “We can never arrest our way out of the human trafficking atrocities. We must be creative and persistent and use all of our city resources to create a better neighborhood for everyone involved," she said.

City crews began to trim some of the problem trees immediately after the conference concluded.