Oakland police on patrol. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
It all started in late spring, when a now 19-year-old woman, known then by her pseudonym, Celeste Guap, told several news outlets she’d had sex with dozens of police officers from seven Bay Area law enforcement agencies, some when she was underage. She said the officers she slept with knew she was involved in the sex trade.
Over the next few months, salacious and damning details continued to emerge.
The next chapter in the case opened last Friday, as Oakland police Officer Brian Bunton was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to charges of felony conspiracy to obstruct justice and engaging in an act of prostitution. On that same day, the Richmond Police Department moved to discipline nine of its officers for their involvement with the scandal. The disciplines ranged from one termination to letters of reprimand for five officers.
But to many, the scandal isn’t just about the one woman, now known by her real name, Jasmine Abuslin.
Abuslin’s lawyer, Pamela Price, told reporters at a press conference two weeks ago that she had heard from other potential victims via email.
“If you step back from it, how is it possible that this many officers could be engaged in this kind of activity over this period of time and she be the only one?” Price told KQED in an earlier interview.
And yet, despite the resignations and reprimands and coming prosecutions, none of the agencies involved have said publicly whether other victims have surfaced during their internal investigations.
Former victims say this type of police sexual misconduct is not a one-off.
Nola Brantley, co-founder and former executive director of MISSSEY, an organization that helps victims of sex trafficking, says sexual misconduct between police and people involved in the sex industry happens quite often.
“You’re talking about a highly vulnerable population of individuals. It’s very, very common,” Brantley said. “Part of the abuse is the abuse that you receive at the hands of law enforcement.”
Brantley said she herself was abused by a San Francisco police officer when she was 14 years old.
In an email, Brantley wrote, “[the officer] was assigned to my high school and part of a program I was also a part of called Youth Court. It began with him targeting me, getting my telephone number off the program list and building trust with me over hours and hours on the phone.”
Brantley wrote that the officer was later terminated from SFPD, accepted a plea deal and did no jail time.
In her email, she wrote that the experience impacted her ability to feel safe and reduced her confidence in people with power and authority. Today Brantley helps others through training and consulting.
When she was at MISSSEY, Brantley says, “We’d have girls that would come in all the time and talk about being raped by police officers” or talk about how “police would not put pressure on their traffickers as long as they were allowed to have sexual contact with the girls.”
The Challenges of Documenting Abuse
FBI Special Agent Marty Parker works extensively with local law enforcement agencies around the Bay Area to combat human trafficking. She cautioned against taking all reports of police sexual misconduct at face value.
While she couldn’t comment specifically on the Bay Area scandal, Parker said, “...one thing that a lot of the agencies investigate pretty regularly are people out there who present to these girls as law enforcement.”
“We get that a lot. There’s always open cases at Oakland PD and other departments as well, where they’re picking up these girls and then demanding sex and stating that they’re law enforcement.”
She said a lot of the victims don’t even realize when they’re assaulted by someone who isn’t a real officer.
Alexandra Lutnick, a senior research scientist with nonprofit RTI International, has been doing research on the sex industry for over 20 years. Some of her most recent work has been focused on the experiences of young people involved in the sex industry.
Lutnick said her findings are similar to what other researchers have found. “Young people are reporting that they’re experiencing violence more often from law enforcement officials than from any other group.”
“That violence can be physical. It can be sexual ... it’s common for police officers to sexually assault them in exchange for not being arrested,” Lutnick said.
Sometimes the abuse happens during the context of an undercover operation.
One social worker Lutnick spoke with during the course of her research told her about how a police officer in Southern California sexually abused her underage client during an undercover prostitution operation.
Lutnick said the youth reported to the caseworker that she got into a man’s car and fondled him while they drove to a gas station and ATM to take out money. The youth said she fondled him for at least five minutes before the man identified himself as law enforcement.
Afterward the youth told the caseworker, “I don’t understand. If he’s an undercover cop and I’m a minor, isn’t he not supposed to, you know, let me do that?”
While it doesn’t appear that any of the police sexual misconduct involving Jasmine Abuslin happened during undercover operations, her story has highlighted the importance of training and policies when it comes to how police deal with people involved in the sex industry.
In California, each police department determines its own policies and procedures. In an effort to better understand how and when police sexual misconduct occurs, KQED requested the policies and procedures for undercover operations from the San Francisco, Richmond and Oakland police departments.
The San Francisco Police Department did not respond in time for publication and the Richmond Police Department issued no response.
The Oakland Police Department has put its policies and procedures online. That policy was updated on Feb. 28, 2014, to include language under the section entitled “Safety Briefing”. The language in H-J outlines the physical contact officers are not allowed to have with subjects of vice/undercover human trafficking investigations, but it also outlines what is allowed, including “unprompted touching”:
H. Undercover officers shall not initiate the touching of a subject or officer's
genitals (e.g. testicles, penis, labia, clitoris, and vagina) or intimate parts
(e.g. breast or buttocks). An unprompted touch of an officer by a subject
does not constitute a violation of Policy;
I. The touching of a subject or officer's clothed or covered genitals or intimate
body parts (aka "cop check"), not initiated by the officer, to further a police
objective is allowed unless the subject is a known juvenile or the officer
reasonably believes the subject is a juvenile;
J. Skin to skin touching of a subject or officer's genitals (e.g. testicles, penis,
labia, clitoris, vagina) is strictly prohibited. An unprompted touch of an
officer by a subject does not constitute a violation of Policy;
KQED reached out to the Oakland Police Department several times by phone and email to discuss its policies and procedures for undercover operations. The department did not respond.
Derek Marsh is a human trafficking expert who has trained police across California on best practices. He worked for the Westminster Police Department in Southern California for over 26 years.
Marsh explained that the language in H-J in Oakland’s policies is there to keep officers safe and to make sure they're not held accountable in situations that are beyond their control.
“Sometimes the person being prostituted will try to prove you’re not a cop and so they’ll reach over and try to grab your genital area or grab your hand and put it on their breast or their crotch area.”
Marsh said "cop checks" are one of several reasons his department didn’t do street stings.
Microphones and pinhole cameras can be used to help keep officers accountable during undercover operations, but the ideal situation is one where there is no disrobing or touching involved, Marsh said.
“If you talk well enough and you understand how to interact with people ... and ask the right questions, you never have to take your clothes off at all,” Marsh said. “Long before that part comes up, you’ve gotten your solicitation and you’re out the door and no one’s the wiser for you being an officer and that person is not victimized other than having to go through the solicitation process.”
Marsh said this approach leads to “a lot less finger-pointing, a lot less potential for traumatizing anyone or getting a complaint for inappropriate conduct."
Whether undercover officers need to have direct physical contact is dependent on the sophistication of the vice unit and what they have experience doing, as well as what the district attorney of that jurisdiction will accept as far as the terms of a solicitation, Marsh said.
The first thing the agencies involved in the scandal need to do to rebuild public trust is to conduct ethics training for their entire departments, according to John Vanek, a consultant and retired lieutenant from the San Jose Police Department, who managed the department’s Human Trafficking Task Force.
From what he’s read about the scandal, Vanek said, “It appears that people in supervisory and or management positions may have failed in their responsibility to respond when they suspected that something wrong was going on.”
The Richmond Police Department has said that lieutenants and sergeants are among those facing discipline in that department. It is unclear whether any of the Oakland officers facing discipline are managers or supervisors.
At the Sept. 7 press conference where Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced discipline against 12 Oakland police officers, Schaaf said, “We will be changing several of our policies and training requirements to increase officer awareness and ability to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and exploitation and better help victims to escape such abuse.”
KQED reached out to the mayor’s office, to get more details on the training and policy changes and to see if the changes will be departmentwide, but received no response.
Vanek said what’s happened in the Bay Area is a failure in leadership. He said while no one can control every member of an agency, “it is the leader’s responsibility to instill ethical and professional behavior.”
Vanek referred to Abuslin’s situation as being “exceptionally sad.”
“It appears she was victimized by many people and ultimately she was victimized by and taken advantage of by police officers,” Vanek said. “And it is police officers that need to be the most trustworthy people in our society.”
Read the Oakland Police Department's policies and procedures for undercover operations below: