Lieutenant Patricia Spencer leads the Vice Section of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. MSNBC spoke with her to discuss the Section’s operations and the unique challenge of fighting sex trafficking in Sin City. Spencer’s predecessor, Lt. Karen Hughes, appears in this week’s new episode of "Sex Slaves", which airs Sunday June 14th at 10 PM ET.
How long has the Vice and Sex Trafficking Investigation Section been around?
Spencer: Oh, it’s been around for years. In the last three to five years, though, it has focused more on sex trafficking. Whereas before, it was all about street enforcement, such as doing john-reversals and going after the girls walking the corners and maybe working the hotels, where we didn’t really have a lot of investigation going on. Well, because of The Innocence Lost Task Force, which involves the FBI and the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force, we’re currently working under a grant with them, and we’ve really defined ourselves with sex trafficking investigations. That’s where we really put a lot of our energy.
When policing these activities, does most of your enforcement come out of sting operations or is there some complaint follow-up procedure?
If we get complaints, we’ll address complaints. If we don’t get complaints, then we’ll just be proactive. We do try our best to address violent crime associated with prostitution-related crimes. If we see a trend of certain crimes within certain areas that are fairly known for prostitution-related situations, we may go into those areas, and depending on what’s going on, we’ll address the crime as it is. We may pick up the girls. We may pick up the johns. We may do room setups. We try to tailor what we do towards specific areas, related to what’s going on with violent crime accordingly.
On Sex Slaves, a lot of the johns that are caught claim that they are first time offenders, that it was the first time they tried to buy sex. Do a lot of the people who are caught also claim to have believed that prostitution is legal in Las Vegas?
Yes, a large majority, almost all of them say they think it’s legal… Do I believe that? No, I don’t. I don’t believe that at all. I think that it’s an excuse. I think that it’s their way of coping with the fact that they got caught. If they say, “Oh, I thought it was legal,” then it somehow makes it less shameful. To admit you just committed a crime – no one wants to do that. It’s accepted practice to say, “Oh, I thought it was legal.” But it has never been legal. Never, never-ever-ever has it been legal in Clark County. I believe that it’s just an excuse, so they can not feel so bad about what they did.
Broadly speaking, the men who get caught, are they mostly be either locals or are they tourists?
There really is no definite answer one way or the other. We definitely get a mixture. It’s really because of the way we target. We may only work the streets, and a lot of girls who work the streets pick up people who are predominantly local. If we work the hotels, obviously a lot of people there are not. It really is just dependent upon where we’re working... I think you have an equal amount of locals that solicit, as well as visitors.
From your experience, do you think that there is anything unique about Clark County’s and Las Vegas’ human trafficking, as compared to other places in the country?
I think that the number here of women being trafficked and the number of traffickers is high. I think that we have a very conducive environment to the commercial sex industry. We have a city of two million people, and we have 41 million visitors here a year. We’re the entertainment capital of the world… It’s like a playground, and unfortunately there are people out there who are exploiting it for personal financial gain. You have the escort services that benefit. You have the strip clubs. You have the massage parlors. Everyone is taking advantage of it. You know, we’re pretty fortunate in Las Vegas because we have a full-time unit dedicated to vice and sex trafficking-related activities. That’s why we’re unique, and that’s why we get so much exposure to everything going on, because we see it every day.
What would you say is one of the biggest challenges for the Vice Section in fighting human trafficking and prostitution?
Education. Community involvement and education are lacking. If you publish an article, let’s say, about a prostitution-related incident, and you read the comments at the bottom, it’s very discouraging because the comments from people are almost always negative towards the police doing this type of investigation. It’s always things such as:
“It should be legalized.”
“It’s consensual sex.”
“What’s the big deal?”
“Terrible waste of police resources.”
“Waste of taxpayer money.”
That’s what you’ll read because the public does not understand or have the education to know that 99.9% of the women are trafficked. They’re beaten. They don’t keep the money, and they are in a life that they can’t escape from. The amount of juveniles that are being trafficked is astronomical, and the community really has no idea.
It’s almost like they don’t want to know. Everyone believes that it’s adult sex, and yeah it’s for money, but it’s still two adults having consensual sex – that’s what they believe, and that’s not the case. That is not what’s happening. People are getting robbed. People are getting beaten. People are getting annihilated, and all for money.
When you say “sex slaves,” that’s what they are. They’re enslaved into this life, and the saddest part is there’s not a lot of community resources out there for the victims. So if a lady came to me today and said, “I need help,” I do have some resources for her, but there’s not a lot.
It’s almost like addiction for these women. They need treatment programs, just like addicts. They have to get out of the life. It’s a very scary life. Their IDs are taken. Their kids are kidnapped and held from the victim a lot. The traffickers take all of their identification and basically cut off their whole life. They have no family to turn to because the trafficker has isolated them so fully, taking their phones and money.
I’ve only been here three months, but I’ll tell you, it’s a world that I did not even know existed. And, to be involved in it the way I am now, you get engrossed in it because it’s so vast. You just can’t believe what you’re seeing. You can’t believe what you hear, and you just think, “How could this be? How could this be?” It’s here, and it’s everywhere.
So would you say that in order to end sex trafficking, there needs to be a broader effort to provide more social resources instead of just arresting and charging the participants?
That would be nice, but that’s a very complicated question. We do give help to people all the time, so what are you going to offer them? I think because the community is so unaware of the underlying issues with commercial sex, there is no support. They don’t want their tax money going towards what they believe is a completely voluntary situation, like taking drugs. So, are we supposed to rehabilitate and give social services to every single drug addict out there who says, “I want help.”? It literally is almost the same thing; it usually takes a year to get these girls halfway acclimated to life outside of that world. Some of them are drug addicts. That’s a very tough one, you know?
Are you at all optimistic in your outlook of the situation? Do you think that there’s hope on the horizon for the issue of Human Trafficking?
We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were just three to five years ago. Give us three to five more, and we’re going to be that much farther. Education’s getting there. Community involvement is getting there. It’s just not there yet. The more people become aware, the better it gets.
On a more personal note, were you part of the Vice Section before beginning to oversee it?
No, my background is primarily in gangs. When this position became available, it piqued my interest. My love and passion has always been chasing and going after gang members, and I can see that gang members have now evolved into pimping. So, the same people that I chased when they were twelve years old are now twenty year-old pimps. Because the money is so much better, they’ve moved away from drugs, and now they’re pimping.
Has the sex trafficking market noticeably changed in anyway, since these gang members have entered it?
Well, I definitely think violent crime is on the rise because of it. So let’s say the girls’ quota for the day for the pimp is $1200. For a girl to make that quota, she has to turn X amount of ticks, with whatever the service fee is. Now, they can go steal and be done with their quota with one trick. So it’s not even about sex for money anymore. Now, it’s sex for property, so we’re seeing a great deal of these girls turning into trick-rollers. They’re pick-pockets, and they literally just take advantage of whoever’s available. You know, if they have a quota to meet, they would much rather meet that quota by stealing than having to turn tricks all night. I mean, who wants to do that? It’s much easier, and there’s more money.
Don't miss the new episode of Sex Slaves: Las Vegas, Sunday June 14th at 10pm ET on msnbc.