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San Diego police chief calls for repeal of loitering law to help fight sex trafficking

Chief Dave Nisleit said the law makes it harder for officers to arrest people for human trafficking and rescue victims

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San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit.

CBS8 San Diego/YouTube

By Lyndsay Winkley
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Civil rights groups and county leaders on Thursday urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to restore a provision in state law that prohibited loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution.

The call came two days after local and state leaders announced a monthlong investigation into human trafficking and sexual exploitation in National City and San Diego had resulted in 48 arrests and the identification of 16 suspected trafficking victims.

Of those victims, eight were children between the ages of 13 and 17.

While discussing the operation, several law enforcement leaders said cracking down on human trafficking and sexual exploitation had been complicated by a state bill that passed last year. The Rev. Shane Harris, president and founder of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, National City police Chief Jose Tellez and others echoed those sentiments on Thursday.

Senate Bill 357, signed by the governor in July, voids a misdemeanor law against loitering in public for the purpose of engaging in prostitution.

Anti-loitering laws have been contentious nationwide, in part because they are often vague in their definition of what constitutes loitering, which gives police wide latitude to arrest or disperse individuals. Before it was passed, SB 357 deeply divided Democrats in the Legislature, and the Assembly approved it with only one vote to spare.

Supporters of the bill said police used the misdemeanor provision to disproportionately discriminate against sex workers and LGBTQ people, including many who are Black and Brown. They raised concerns that the previous law worsened conditions for sex workers and led to unsafe and violent situations, especially for transgender women.

Opponents said SB 357 would remove a crucial tool to stop sex trafficking, especially of children, and would hamstring victim outreach efforts. They also argued that police used the loitering law to hold johns and pimps accountable for taking advantage of young women and girls.

On Thursday, Harris said supporters of the bill “utilized the racial conversation and the civil rights conversation to create what is a disaster in policy that has failed to protect the most vulnerable of our society — the children.”

Harris, who spent 13 years in the foster care system, said the risk of sexual exploitation is particularly high for foster youth. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, it has been estimated that 60 percent of child sex trafficking victims have histories in the child welfare system.

Harris said he sent a letter to Newsom and other state officials on Wednesday, asking that the change in the law be repealed.

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