Cop offers trafficking victims way out
For The Madera Tribune Madera Police Officer Scott Roberts and O.L.I.V.E. board president Kristina Espinoza (right) speak to a suspeced prostitute in the hopes that she will leave the streets with them.
With dozens of women and girls being exploited for sex in Madera, one police sergeant is attacking the issue with a different method — and is getting results.
To better help the victims of the sex trade, Sgt. Daniel Foss started O.L.I.V.E., or Overcoming Limitations through Integrity, Values and Empowerment. Conceived in 2015, and becoming a nonprofit in March 2016, the organization has the goal of helping women and girls get out of prostitution and leave the life behind.
“My main interest on this now is a long-term solution,” said Foss. “It’s a long-term solution with big gains. I’m not going for the short-term solution anymore.”
For law enforcement, the standard protocol for prostitution has been a simple cycle of contact, arrest, and release. This was the procedure followed by the Madera Police Department, and it was the same for Foss, who quickly noticed that standard police procedures did little to combat the problem of prostitution.
“I would arrest them like everybody else,” Foss said. “I had to come across a girl working in prostitution, we’d usually (have) dispatch center call and say, ‘hey, there’s prostitution activity at this location,’ I’d go to that location, find them there, and take them to jail.”
This way of dealing with the problem, according to Foss, was of no help to the people arrested.
“I quickly realized that I am not helping these girls at all. And I understood too that when I was arresting them, they’d have a cellphone,” Foss said. “So they’d be getting texts while I’m arresting them, and this was at the time when you were under arrest, your cellphone had to be turned over to law enforcement. The ‘From’ would usually say: ‘Daddy.’”
These text messages, Foss said, would frequently be from their pimps, and would threaten the sex workers with severe beatings upon their release. It bothered the conscience of the sergeant, who by then had been a veteran with the police.
“I knew I was causing those girls major harm, and what they’re doing is not something they ought to be doing to begin with, so I was just making their life worse,” Foss said. “And I strongly felt that we are here to serve and protect, and these girls need our help.”
It was with this in mind that Foss started O.L.I.V.E., and quickly put his organization to work.
In order to help these sex workers that he might encounter, Foss (or another officer) begins by contacting them. Starting a conversation, Foss tells them that he is there not to arrest, but to help them. He then turns his end of the discussion over to an O.L.I.V.E. volunteer, who further tells them about their organization. If the sex worker agrees to come with Foss and the volunteer, she is taken to a safe space such as a shelter or hotel, bought a change of clothes, and is then taken to get help through the proper victim advocacy channels.
“I’ll contact them, and once I contact them, I’ll let them know, I make a break to them, very quick to them, that I am not here like a normal officer. I am not here to arrest them,” Foss said. “I’m not here to harass you. I’m not going to take you to jail unless I’m absolutely forced to. I’m here to help you — I want to help.”
According to the organization’s board president, Kristina Espinoza, establishing communication can also be difficult in and of itself.
“When you’re out there on the streets and you’re talking with the girls, you can notice immediately that they’re very nervous, they’re anxious,” Espinoza said, “their phone is constantly going off because normally in the vicinity, their pimp’s watching them, so he knows they’re speaking with someone and he’s calling their phone.”
According to Foss, if he contacts a prostitute and makes an effort to help, he will likely get only one opportunity.
“When you do this type of program, it’s very similar to an intervention,” Foss said. “You have that one window. You’re not going to call and get them to agree later. You have to use emotion and the moment, and if you don’t, it closes.”
It is standard for a pimp to move the prostitute out to another town if law enforcement gets too close, as they become too “hot” for them to stay. Pimps also have a tendency to be very close by the victims they are using.
So far, Foss has seen several prostitutes become rehabilitated, and according to him, has seen one “success” story every two months on average. Foss, however, has said that if O.L.I.V.E. can save just one person a year, his efforts, and the efforts of his volunteers, have all been worth it.
O.L.I.V.E., meanwhile, has gained the full support of his fellow officers and superiors, who have even helped him raise funds.
“I just think it’s very creative,” said Madera Police Chief Steve Frazier, who said it gives victims an out, and presented the department with a better way to handle prostitution than punishing the victims of trafficking. “I think this is a very legitimate alternative.”
“I want a long-term solution,” Foss said, “with a permanent gain.”