Mayor Adams usually uses his massive email newsletter list to tout the city's newest green-sustainability-eco experience or publicize his take on city council measures. But this morning, his office sent out a lengthy email to citizens slapping the Oregonian for its recent article debunking Portland's reputation for human trafficking.

The letter says that the article, “Story of ‘Pornland’ is a Myth”, is irresponsible, misleading, and "minimizes the gravity of Portland's human trafficking problem, and unfortunately emboldens pimps and johns." Serious charges to levy at a paper.

The issue that reporter Nikole Hannah Jones keys in on in the story is that there are very, very few hard number showing that Portland is a hub for sex trafficking. Instead of having arrest records or case files to back of the reputation, the mayor's office, police, and victims' advocacy groups rely on anecdotal evidence from police officers who say they see about two cases a week of child sex trafficking in Portland. That's not two prosecutions a week or two arrests a week, but just officers who work on sex crimes cases reporting back that they've talked with two underage people a week that they believe are being forced to work as prostitutes.

As Adams' letter notes, "the data is hard to validate because the victims, mostly young girls, fear for their lives if they do approach authorities, or call for help. That imperfect data doesn’t justify inaction. If anything, it justifies a redoubling our efforts, making it easier and safer for victims to get help and law enforcement to take down criminals."

Asked about the reliability of anecdotal evidence on these issues, police spokeswoman Kelli Sheffer said, "There's no way to get hard numbers on cases because cases are hard to make. It's not about statistics. It's about knowing that we have a problem here and addressing it."

This back-and-forth from the mayor, police, and Oregonian leaves me with these questions:
— Clearly the heinous crime of underage sex trafficking is present in Portland, but to what extent? Is it more of a problem here than in other places?
— Does whether we're a "hub" or not even matter? If there's even one girl a month, let's say, who's forced into prostitution in the city, should we devote major resources and money to helping her?
— Should city hall rely on the police officer's anecdotal evidence to guide public policy on prostitution, or should they have to get hard numbers on prostitution (through more prosecutions or arrests) to prove there's a problem?

Public defender Chris O'Connor notes that sometimes the police accounts of prostitution are unreliable. He points to a case heard in court (pdf) this November where a judge declared that it was not acceptable for Portland officers to assume that a woman was a prostitute because she was walking along 82nd Ave, wearing jeans and a sweater, making eye contact with traffic, and got into a car.

"You cannot run a system of law and order on anecdotes," says O'Connor. "Either the police are going after prostitution and following it up the chain, in which case there are hard numbers, or the anecdotes are unreliable and that's why they're failing to prosecute."

Mayor Adams' full email below the cut.

Dear friends,

The Oregonian recently published an irresponsible and misleading article, (“ Story of ‘Pornland’ is a myth,” January 11, 2011), an article that minimizes the gravity of Portland’s human trafficking problem, and unfortunately emboldens pimps and johns.

Portland didn’t choose the label “Pornland,” but to suggest that human trafficking here is a myth is a dangerous deception. The data we do have suggests it’s a significant problem: Portland police see an average of two cases of child sex trafficking each week, according to the estimate of a veteran officer on the Portland Police Bureau’s sex crimes unit.

But human sex trafficking crimes are hard to track, as noted by Portland Police Bureau Sergeant Mike Geiger during last November’s press conference on the topic. The data is hard to validate because the victims, mostly young girls, fear for their lives if they do approach authorities, or call for help. That imperfect data doesn’t justify inaction. If anything, it justifies a redoubling our efforts, making it easier and safer for victims to get help and law enforcement to take down criminals.

Domestic violence provides a useful analogy.

Authorities and newspapers once discounted the true scope of domestic violence in our society. Victims rarely spoke out, or called for help. They feared retribution, they feared for their lives. Now the term is understood. Hotlines and shelters care for victims. Police know what to look for.

With human trafficking, we are getting better at fighting the crime. We’ve found that human trafficking, much like domestic violence, is hard to study. Girls in the industry often view the pimp as their boyfriend. Police find out about cases from runaway reports, curfew violations, drug busts, and calls from concerned friends. What starts out as a shoplifting arrest may, with diligent and patient investigation, end up a human trafficking investigation.

The crime was also once more visible. Biking down 82nd, you could see a thriving sex trade business with girls walking the city streets and escort businesses marketing them. Police Bureau launched a saturated enforcement effort. As a result, the prostitution industry is largely underground and online. Sadly, many girls are being trafficked up and down the West Coast, from Vancouver to Portland to Las Vegas to California.

Lawmakers like Senator Ron Wyden, County Commissioner McKeel, and my colleague, Commissioner Dan Saltzman; organizations like Janus Youth Services; and police officers and outreach workers across the city have helped us recognize we need to do even more.

* Portland Police Bureau has doubled the size of its human trafficking detail;
* Portland City Council passed a resolution to fund two additional Sexual Abuse Resource Center (SARC) victim advocates and dedicated shelter beds to provide a safe haven for juvenile victims of human trafficking in Portland;
* The City of Portland has designated additional legislation to combat juvenile human trafficking as one of its state level priorities.

Police officers have gotten better at recognizing the signs, and following the clues. We’ve teamed up with the Sexual Assault Resource Center, Multnomah County Human Services, Soroptimist, and the Innocence Lost federal task force.

We’re trying to stop johns and pimps. Instead of casting doubt on the severity of a truly heinous crime, the newspaper has the opportunity to be part of the solution. Help victims, not pimps.

If you have any information about human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or the Oregon Human Trafficking Line at 503-251-2479.


Sam Adams