Public policy fellows with San Francisco's Department on the Status of Women hold mockups of anti-trafficking billboards. (Tara Siler/KQED)
Up to 1 million revelers are expected to flood the Bay Area this week leading up to Sunday's Super Bowl in Santa Clara. Officials have repeatedly alerted the public to looming traffic nightmares -- but law enforcement officials have been issuing another alert.
They say apart from the crowds and frenzied fun, something darker will be going on: Sex traffickers will be trying to cash in on the annual bash.
Local law enforcement is asking the public for help rescuing those being exploited.
“We have to team up: Law enforcement, airport workers and all of you out there to be extra vigilant,” says Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen.
The annual game that brings together a lot of men, money and parties is often linked to a big spike in sex trafficking. The Super Bowl has even been called the largest human trafficking event in the country. There’s no evidence to back that up. But for several years the big event has nonetheless been used to shine a bright light on an often hidden industry.
“We know we have an opportunity to get attention to this issue today,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón says. "And we're taking advantage of that."
Nonprofits and local government agencies are joining with the FBI to launch the No Traffick Ahead Campaign. It includes training Super Bowl volunteers, bus drivers, airline and hotel workers to watch for signs someone is being coerced, such as apparent subservience or difficulty making eye contact -- even women or girls seemingly “branded” with a signature tattoo.
Organizers have also dotted four Bay Area counties with billboards aimed at catching the public’s eye and spurring conversation about sex and labor trafficking.
A bright pink one with a simple image of a cellphone asks, "Is There an App for Sexual Exploitation? Ask Your Teen." Organizers say the question tries to drive home the message that young people are vulnerable to grooming by traffickers using social media, especially since so much sex is now bought and paid for online.
Meanwhile, behind closed doors in a special operations center in Oakland, the FBI is working with local police departments scouring websites known for selling sex.
“Our game plan is to target traffickers … and johns,” says Bertram Fairries, a special agent with the FBI. Fairries says law enforcement is also shifting its approach toward the sex workers themselves by offering them housing, food, counseling and other services.
He says even if a sex worker declines the assistance and doesn’t cooperate with authorities, that "doesn’t mean we're going to turn around and prosecute them."
But attorney Kate Mogulescu is wary. She's with the Legal Aid Society in New York and runs a program for trafficking victims. She says during the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey there was a similar public campaign against human trafficking.
A simultaneous crackdown by law enforcement just led to a lot of women being swept up on prostitution charges. “Our experience here was incredibly frustrating,” Mogulescu says. “It was incredibly frustrating to live the experience on the ground in criminal court versus what we were seeing and hearing on the news. They were very, very disparate experiences, and I hope that doesn’t repeat itself.”
Some of the advocates working with the Bay Area campaign say it's a valid concern that sex workers will be targeted for arrest, especially during the Super Bowl.
“There's an enormous amount of pressure for law enforcement to produce numbers,” says Sharan Dhanoa, coordinator of the No Traffick Ahead campaign. But, she says, it will be worth it if some of them accept the services and ultimately break free of the exploitation.
“So for us it's really looking at the bigger picture,” Dhanoa says.
The bigger picture, she says, includes fighting human trafficking long after the last play of Super Bowl 50.