Know The Signs


Officer Moody talks to a woman on 23rd who has been walking around for several hours. (photo by: Stacey Kennelly)


Officers identify suspected prostitutes by their clothing. “The high boots are usually a give-away,” Moody says. (photo by: Stacey Kennelly)


Sgt. Ruth DuCharme is the driving force being the Richmond Police Department’s efforts to combat pimping and human trafficking. (photo by: Stacey Kennelly)


Officer Moody talks to a 19-year-old woman on a side street off 23rd Street. She admits she is there to prostitute herself, and says she does not “feel as if she is in harm’s way.” (photo by: Stacey Kennelly)


Officer Moody keeps an open eye for suspicious activity on 23rd Street every weekend. (photo by: Stacey Kennelly)



It’s nearing dusk and Richmond police officer James Moody drives through downtown and into the 23rd Street corridor, a destination for women looking to make some cash in exchange for sex.

They come from Oakland, San Jose and other parts of the Bay Area. Most range from 18 to their mid-30s, although Moody stopped a 45-year-old local recently, and he encounters the occasional minor. Earlier this evening, he stopped a young woman from Manteca.

It’s Friday night and the weather is warm and clear—indications that the street is likely to be busy tonight.

The women in skimpy clothes and high heels stick out against the backdrop of panaderias and restaurants. It’s almost dark and they’re walking up 23rd Street, then down, and then up again. A fair-skinned Hispanic girl in a tangerine halter-top dress and knee-high black boots swaggers her hips as she walks, her purse and jacket clutched tightly beneath her arm. Across the street, two African-American women in revealing denim shorts and flashy high heels walk side by side. All have cell phones glued to their hands.

Some disappear into doorways and down side streets as Moody’s cruiser passes by. Others pause at bus stops, lighting cigarettes and pretending to talk on the phone. The girl in the tangerine dress spots the cop car and hurriedly puts on her jacket.

Moody recognizes some of them. “I’ve made contact with her on several occasions,” he says, motioning out the window towards a Caucasian woman on the sidewalk.

She’s walking past a bus stop on 23rd Street near Esmond Avenue. She sees the police car and holds onto her strapless top as she scurries across the street, avoiding looking in Moody’s direction.

“Let’s talk to her,” Moody says.

. . .

The scene described above isn’t uncommon on 23rd Street, a main drag through Richmond’s growing Hispanic district that’s been known as a prostitution hot-spot for years. In the past, police have ignored the women there, instead focusing their efforts on other crimes that plague the community, especially gang activity and other violent crimes that peak at night.

But a gradual shift in attitude by the department and law-enforcement nationwide that acknowledges many prostitutes as victims has caused the Richmond Police Department to start focusing on taking down pimps, many of whom illegally force or coerce women and minors to work on the streets.

“In the past, prostitution has been seen as a conscious choice these women were making to live a certain lifestyle,” said Sgt. Ruth DuCharme, head of the department’s Sexual and Domestic Violence Unit. “But now we’re starting to understand that many of these cases are more predatory, and that many of these women perform this work because another individual tells them to. It can be as simple as, ‘If you don’t do this, I won’t love you, I’ll leave you, or I’ll hurt you.’ It’s no longer a victimless crime, and the focus is shifting to those who are gaining from this exploitation.”

That sort of coercion, DuCharme says, constitutes human trafficking, a form of modern slavery that has been off law enforcement and the public’s radar until recently. Still, awareness of the issue has been gradual. Despite its widespread occurrence throughout history, the United Nations didn’t define “human trafficking” until 2000, when it described the crime as the recruitment, transfer or harboring or persons by means of threat, force, fraud or deception, for the purpose of exploiting and benefiting off of that person.

Human trafficking is a crime often associated with Eastern Europe and other far-away places, when in fact, its an issue that plagues every community in the United States, DuCharme said. The issue is especially relevant in Richmond, a community where gun violence and a high number of immigrants and runaways, as well as other factors associated with poverty, make the city ripe for pimp activity.

Last week, Police Chief Chris Magnus presented an official document to Contra Costa County police chiefs to create a county-wide human-trafficking task force, of which Richmond will be the lead. The task force will pool the efforts of police departments, prosecutors and non-governmental groups who can help victims once they escape the reign of their pimps, as well as make it possible for law enforcement to track down individuals who commit the crime of trafficking across several jurisdictions.

“As a police department, we are not equipped to handle the problem of human trafficking on our own,” DuCharme said. “But if we work closely together as a community, we can definitely have a big impact. It’s a bigger problem than we even know.”

. . .

Her face is blank as she’s ushered in, hands cuffed behind her back. She sees the room full of cops in civilian clothes; almost all of them are male. She mutters “whoa” as her eyes get wide and then shoot to the ground, her face turning red. This is not the situation she expected to find herself in when she came to the hotel tonight.

Her spandex, leopard-print dress is riding up her thighs; she manages to wiggle it down so her underwear doesn’t show. Her eyes are caked with dark makeup, her lips coated with brick-red lipstick.

She avoids eye contact as her eyes dart around the room: they land on bullet-proof vests, laptops and pizza boxes. She sees DuCharme, the only female officer in the room, and her eyes rest there for a moment.

The young woman is led toward the couch and sits down. She glances over at two officers rifling through her purse, looking for evidence that she came here this evening intending to have sex in exchange for money.

Her expression remains stoic until she’s standing again near the hotel-room door, her face bowed into the closet so no one can see. When she turns around, her eyes are clouded with tears and her lower lip is quivering. She shakes her head so the crimped, black-and-bleached hair in her ponytail hides more of her face.

She did not come here on her own accord tonight.

DuCharme has been here all evening, directing officers and recording conversations, but she is most active when it comes time to search and communicate with the young women. She speaks to them kindly, without judgment.

. . .

DuCharme, a pleasant but dauntless woman originally from Santa Rosa, is the driving force behind the department’s efforts. A single mother, she put herself through the police academy in 2001, and worked as a sexual assault detective from 2004 to 2007.

During that time, she received weekly reports about young girls who claimed they were kidnapped and coerced to commit crimes including prostitution, but those reports fell by the wayside of homicide, rape and issues many officers saw as more pressing.

She sometimes felt like the issue of sexual exploitation was falling on deaf ears, she said.

“The attitude was sort of, ‘Oh please, she was probably out past her curfew and blah, blah, blah,’” DuCharme said from her office on a recent afternoon. “Those cases didn’t get the attention they deserved, and as a detective, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. Now, I’m in a position where I can do something.”

DuCharme was promoted to sergeant of the department’s Sexual and Domestic Violence unit in March, and attended a meeting for a zero-tolerance domestic violence task force in Contra Costa County. The meeting was attended by law enforcement, non-governmental organizations and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but DuCharme was frustrated by the lack of resources and information available for police officers regarding human trafficking.

“None of my questions got answered, and it was frustrating,” she said. “I wanted to know, ‘What does it look like? How do I look for it?’ The more people I asked, more people told me, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

DuCharme began researching how departments in other counties were handling the issue—including efforts of Oakland and San Rafael, where police have federally funded task forces to address human trafficking.

A working group was started within the Richmond Police Department that included one detective from each patrol unit and patrol officers. That collaboration made it possible for DuCharme and her colleagues to draw ties between individuals involved with several different types of crimes, including trafficking.

“I was helping a detective with a property crime, and I realized a lot of the women involved were prostitutes,” she said. “It just kind of morphed into, ‘Hey, this girl has ties to that guy, and that guy is connected to this homicide.’ It just helped us put it all together.”

That ability to pinpoint individuals involved in several types of crimes was one of the driving factors for DuCharme to pursue the issue.

“The guys that are doing this are also out there selling drugs, committing murders, robbing people, committing fraud,” she said. “If we put enough of these guys away for 10-year, 20-year, 30-year or life sentences, that’s huge. Talk about making an impact.”

As summer approached, DuCharme also contacted each police department in Contra Costa County, including the District Attorney Robert Kochly and a detective from the San Rafael Police Department, and called a meeting. But only 11 individuals from three or four agencies showed up, she said.

“I think the lack of interest from some departments has to do with the fact that they’re busy,” she said. “Human trafficking is seen as a side-car issue.”

Regardless, DuCharme held the roundtable discussion to get the ball rolling. Another meeting was held over the summer and had better attendance, and it was then that DuCharme and the San Rafael detective decided they’d put together a curriculum for police officers that needed training on the issue.

The result was a daylong symposium held in August, which had 80 attendees from different police departments across Contra Costa County, as well as representatives from from non-governmental organizations and the California Massage Therapy Council.

It was at that meeting that a formal county-wide task force was seriously discussed. DuCharme knew the department didn’t have the time, money or manpower to tackle the issue on its own. She also knew that almost all human-trafficking cases cross between several cities, counties, states and sometimes countries, making it tough to nail down charges without collaboration between several jurisdictions.

DuCharme and Detective Kevin Simmons, head of the Richmond Police Department’s child-porn investigations, wrote a draft Memorandum of Understanding—a binding document intended to bring Contra Costa County resources together in a task force—which Chief Chris Magnus presented to the Police Commission at a county-wide Police Chief’s Association meeting in late October. He received their support, but was unable to get any signatures at that time. Departments who sign it in the future will essentially be promising that at least one officer in their respective departments will pursue the issue of human trafficking and attend task force meetings.

“We’re not asking for money, but manpower,” she said.

The department is in the process of seeking grant money that would allow for more training sessions for police and members of the public regarding the issue of human trafficking, but for now, costs associated with the department’s efforts are falling on the department and DuCharme herself.

. . .

“Can you stand up for me, sweetie?”

DuCharme is using an iPad to take the 19-year-old’s photo in the hotel room—one of her entire body, then a few close-ups of her tattoos.

“Who’s Danielle?” DuCharme asks as she moves part of the girl’s dress to reveal the full tattoo.

“My girlfriend,” she says meekly.

A few moments later: “And who’s Rae?”

She rolls her eyes. “My other girlfriend.”

She’s taken away and to the police station, where she’s interviewed for hours and divulges enough information for police to pursue her female pimps.

A few hours later, another young woman—this time, a petite African American from central California, enters the room in handcuffs. She’s dressed less promiscuously—her T-shirt, jeans and boots make her appear as any young woman one may see at a shopping mall. But she’s sitting on the couch with her hands behind her back, shaking her head. She has several warrants out for her arrest, all stemming from prostitution charges.

She’s full of personality, and she’s joking with the male undercover officers, one of whom puts his foot next to her boots.

“Where can I get boots like those?”

“Man, you playin’! Stop playin’!”

She’s watching as officers juggle phone calls from other women they’ve contacted in an attempt to lure them to the hotel.

“Ya’ll are slick as hell!” she says, laughing.

Officers saw a man drop her off, so they press her for information about him. Two women dropped off the alleged prostitute who was busted earlier.

Why would one woman allow another woman to force her into prostitution?

She looks over. “I don’t work for nobody,” she says candidly. “But they call ’em madames.”

She leans back and twists her shoulders, apparently uncomfortable in her handcuffs.

She continues: “You know how many gay girls is out here in California? But it’s not a real relationship if you pimpin’ her out, you know? Police don’t think women is pimpin’ too, but they is.”

. . .

The Richmond Police Department has arrested 13 people since it began its anti-human-trafficking efforts six months ago, DuCharme said. Six arrests have stemmed from the department’s three undercover operations, while the others have occurred simply due to patrol officers like Moody taking the time to stop and talk to women on the street.

Although arresting prostitutes is not their main focus, prostitution is still a crime, and prostitutes are the best source of information that can lead to the arrest of a pimp, DuCharme said. Through their efforts, several other potential pimps have been identified, but the department is still gathering evidence.

Websites including—a Bay Area escort and massage-parlor guide that allows women to create profiles featuring their photos, rates and locations—have been useful to police. Aside from giving officers a feel for how rampant prostitution is in West Contra Costa County, the websites have also been a way for police to confirm that a suspected prostitute is, in fact, involved in the sex industry.

In May, the department arrested a 21-year-old man who resides between the Richmond and Sacramento areas after a Richmond police officer stopped a juvenile on 23rd Street. Officers conducted an online investigation and found several online profiles for the minor—including one on, Simmons said.

Simmons, who has been working alongside DuCharme, said the minor appeared to be prostituting herself voluntarily with the help of her pimp, but because she’s a juvenile, he’s facing charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor on top of pimping charges. He recently refused a plea deal, and the case is likely to go to trial.

Simmons declined to comment on the case further since the investigation is ongoing.

Investigators are also remaining tight-lipped about the remaining individuals facing pimping charges in the county at this time.

Getting a human-trafficking conviction—or even a pimping conviction—can be difficult, Simmons said. Most women who are pimped or forced to sell themselves for sex do not report it to police, or when charges are filed, they decline to testify in court.

Immigrant populations—including those in Richmond, where the Hispanic population is growing rapidly—complicate the issue, since most undocumented women don’t report sex crimes to the police.

“These are tricky cases because there is that gray area where in order for them to testify or to speak with an investigator, they might be saying things which would incriminate them in other crimes,” Simmons said, adding that many prostitutes are involved with fraud and other property crimes. “The important thing to stress in the interview is that they’re being interviewed as a victim, they’re not being interviewed as a suspect regardless of what they might say.”

DuCharme, who worked closely with victims during her time as a detective, said that a lack of awareness across the board about what constitutes human trafficking also adds to the difficulty of achieving convictions.

“It can be so hard to prove,” she said, adding that acts as small as coercion constitute trafficking. “Girls would say to me, ‘He’s saying that he just needs this bill paid, and he just needs me to do this one thing. He’s my boyfriend, and he loves me.’ Which obviously is not true—its a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

In addition to those challenges, it is tough for prosecutors to convince juries when human-trafficking occurs, since most members of the public know little-to-nothing about the issue or its severity. That ignorance proliferates amongst law-enforcement officials, too, said John Vanek, a retired lieutenant with the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force.

“I think probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 percent of officers in the state could reasonably describe to you what human trafficking is,” Vanek said. “When I went through academy 25 years ago, there was never any discussion that women were forced into this trade. There was never any discussion that these women were being victimized in all of the ways which we now understand they are.”

Vanek helped form San Jose’s human-trafficking task force in 2005 after his department received a federal grant that allowed him to pursue the issue. Like the one planned in Contra Costa County, the San Jose task force is composed of local and federal law-enforcement officials and prosecutors, as well as victims-services advocates who can help women after they escape the reign of their pimps. A similar program, known as H.E.A.T. Watch (Human Exploitation and Trafficking), exists in Alameda County.

“You have to build a network in which everyone is buying into the work together,” Vanek said. “Because not one single agency can handle a human trafficking incident—or even just a victim that could need medical care, psychological care, clothing, a place to live or immigration assistance—on its own.”

To that end, DuCharme would like to see the creation of services in Contra Costa County in upcoming years that provide support to human-trafficking victims and other individuals leaving the sex industry. As of now, only one program—Girls in Motion—exists, and that program is only intended for minors.

“I find it really difficult to work with the victims, because while I feel empathy, I feel this futileness,” she said. “I can’t help but think, ‘Are we really helping them?’ If we don’t have resources for them, they’ll go right back into this lifestyle. And really, a police department can’t provide those things.”

Aside from creating resources for victims, DuCharme would also like to increase public awareness about the issue of human trafficking, so citizens can act as eyes and ears and report back to law officials when they think a case is occurring.

She also wants to pursue other causes that might put an end to human trafficking, including investigating Richmond’s massage parlors—which the department has never monitored in the past—and working with hotels in the area that may be contributing to the problem.

“We’ve barely hit the ground,” DuCharme said. “It’s going to take some time to see the impact of our efforts. To change the mindset that’s been this way for 100 years—to change people’s minds about the way we look at prostitution and prostitutes—is going to take a very long time.”

. . .

Officer Moody swings his cruiser down a side street and hops out in one swift motion.

“Hey, come here for a second.”

At first, she acts like she can’t hear him. She holds up her cell phone, pretending to take a call.

“Hey! Come here!”

“Why?” Her tone is whiney.

“I want to talk to you.”

She rolls her eyes and walks back across the street. She’s Caucasian, slightly overweight, wearing denim shorts with decorative back pockets and a zebra-print belt. Peeking out of her black tube-top is a soiled bra, its dingy, loose straps bunching in her armpits. Her hair is greasy and matted in the back.

The ensuing conversation is what Moody calls “the song and dance.”

“What? Why are you buggin’ me? I swear on my kids that’s not what I’m doing out here,” she says. She’s shrugging and half-smiling.

He takes down her information. She’s in her mid-30s, is from out of town, and has been arrested on prostitution charges before. But she doesn’t have any warrants, so Moody lets her go.

He looks her in the eye, and with a stern voice, he says: “I don’t want to see you out here again.”