In 2011, I heard a loud bang on my door. My heart began to pound in my chest. I’d heard that knock before. A “cop” knock. Complete and utter despair set in when I heard the officer call my full name, demanding I open the door or he would kick it in and take me to jail for everything he found in that room. I started taking inventory of all the illegal things my trafficker had done, everything he’d forced me to do, and what we had in that room. I wasn’t quite sure why the officer was threatening to kick our door in, but I was sure I knew the only possible outcome. Without a doubt, however this ended, it was not going to be good for me.
If my trafficker went to jail, I would be held accountable and terrorized by other gang members for not protecting him. If we were given a warning by the officer and forced to move, my trafficker would beat me and blame me for bringing heat upon us. Or I would take the fall for everything in that room.
I could feel Officer Matthews’* hot breath on my face as I opened the door. He told me to lay on the floor face down, with my hands behind my head. He told my trafficker to do the same. Matthews’ hard boot ground into my kidneys as he told me today was my lucky day. I could tell him where my trafficker’s dope was or he would arrest me for what he found in the room. I better cooperate, or he would trash the room and find everything.
Matthews started searching the room, opening all the drawers, looking on every surface. I can remember praying he wouldn’t tear all the drawers out of the dresser and look behind them. I remained completely silent, fearing that any engagement with Matthews would launch him into a fury, where he would destroy our room, and I would gain another stomp from his boot in my kidneys. Matthews found a bag of cocaine – less than the contents of a sugar packet – in the beat-up drawer next to the bed. I was in shock; I thought we had concealed everything we had in case we had a kick-door from police or rival gang members. He chuckled, “See, I told you today was your lucky day. You can tell me where all this piece of sh*t’s dope is at, or I take you to jail.” He knew the stakes, he knew my name, and he knew my record.
I nervously glanced at my pimp, who was gazing at me with the deepest hate while we lay face to face. I can remember my entire nervous system lighting up – my entire body felt like it was on fire. Immediately the vision of my trafficker stabbing me slashed before my eyes. It had happened just a few weeks before. I can remember thinking, “he is going to kill me.”
Officer Matthews had spit foaming on his lips as he forced out the words, “This is your last chance… Tell me whose dope this is or tell me where the rest of his dope is, and I will let you go.” A pregnant silence overtook the room as my trafficker gazed at me with hate and expectancy. I took a drug charge for my trafficker that day. The moment Matthews clicked the cuffs on me, my heart sank to the depths of my soul. I knew I was about to do some serious time. It would be my 9th felony if convicted, and with enhancements for habituals, I could be looking at 10 to 25 years or more.
Sitting in county jail that night, I had an epiphany. I wasn’t afraid to die. I was afraid to live. I realized for the first time that it was not my fault what had happened to me, but that I damn sure needed to figure out how to get beyond all this. No one could do it for me. I made a choice, right then and there, to fight. Fighting was nothing new to me, but fighting for myself was. From that moment forward, I knew I would never allow another person, my past, my addiction, or systems define me. That meant deciding to connect with services, not my dope dealer. That meant making the decision to stay away from “still” people: still broke, still borrowing, still robbing, still in the game, still getting high, still doing the same things. No one was ever going to control me again.
Sadly, I am not alone. Nearly 91 percent of trafficking survivors have reported being arrested, and nearly half were arrested more than 9 times, while those that fuel the illicit sex market – traffickers and buyers – more often than not walk away freely. I was not incarcerated for that 9th felony, but I know the consequences from my own past time inside, and from that of girls who had been stuck in the cycle. Criminalizing this vulnerable population only compounds issues, limiting people’s economic agency and potentially tethering them to commercial sex work, violence, and abuse. I work tirelessly in these spaces to change the narrative and outcomes for our most vulnerable populations.
My past has not changed, but my relationship to it has, including my relationship with law enforcement. Today I travel the country sharing my story and my expertise with law enforcement of all stripes. It is an honor to partner with amazing officers to find innovative solutions to address commercial sexual exploitation. It makes my heart smile to see a full house of officers when I present and share truths about the realities of domestic sex trafficking, and law enforcement’s critical role in changing outcomes for those entangled in commercial sexual exploitation. When I’m able to teach law enforcement how to help people like me – by shifting the narrative around commercial sexual exploitation and by partnering with community-based organizations outside of the justice system – I know I’ve come full circle.
*Officer Matthews is a pseudonym