Cracking down on sex trafficking by not arresting prostitutes

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PHOENIX -- Prostitutes, pimps and johns are the key players when it comes to sex trafficking, but Phoenix is choosing not to arrest the women selling sex in an experimental program called Project Rose.

Dominique Roe-Sepowitz is the associate director of the Office of Forensic Social Work at Arizona State University.

"They're kind of in a subculture of our community," Roe-Sepowitz said. "They have their own language, they have their own culture, they have their own lingo, they have their own rules."

Phoenix has become a hot spot for sex trafficking in part because we're a destination point and our major highways.

"It's in hotels along the I-17 corridor and the I-10 corridor, it's in high-end luxury resorts, it's in apartment complexes in regular neighborhoods, it's in homes in regular neighborhoods," said Lt. Jim Gallagher, who heads up the Vice Unit for the Phoenix Police Department.

In one of those seemingly regular Valley neighborhoods, a 15-year-old girl somehow survived 42 days of torture.

As Gallagpher admits, "We were unprepared for that case at that time."

Not only was the teen stuffed in a dog crate, she was repeatedly forced to have sex inside the apartment.

"That opened our eyes to really what this was all about," Gallagher said.

That 2005 case was a turning point for Gallagher and the entire Vice Enforcement Unit.

"Arresting people does nothing," Gallagher explained. "It criminalizes a victim, it doesn't appreciate their victimization, it doesn't appreciate their inherent needs for recovery and it doesn't appreciate their dignity."

Gallagher partnered up with Roe-Sepowitz along with many other agencies to create Project Rose. It's a roundup requiring extensive police manpower. But in order to pull it off, Gallagher had to make a unique request.

"I need 100 police officers for 24 hours and we don't want to arrest anybody," he said.

Rather than arrest sex trafficking victims, Project Rose enables officers to bring them to Bethany Bible Church.

When women walk in the door, "We would say, 'You're safe here, if you want to come in, you can get all these services," Roe-Sepowitz said.

Services include everything from mental help to medical assistance.

"Many of them haven't seen a doctor in years and years and years and have really major things like heroin-related injection site abscesses, many things we don't really think about when we see them walking down the street," Roe-Sepowitz explained. "They're kind of invisible."

While Project Rose is still very much an experiment, it's already showing tremendous promise. Not only by helping victims but also saving costs.
"By not booking 79 people, we saved $29,000 in booking fees alone," Gallagher said. "We got a ton of intelligence on legitimate bad guys that we're following up with right now."

Leads that will hopefully put a dent in this multibillion-dollar business and restore dignity for the victims.

"It's what it's all about," Gallagher said. "We have to give these people a chance."

The Phoenix Police Department along with ASU are eager to conduct Project Rose III in the future. They ultimately hope to make this a more sustainable program offered more often.

Video footage provided by Storyteller Productions, Inc.