Van Nuys had been a hotspot for human trafficking and prostitution for more than three decades. In 2016, after increased security efforts within the surrounding area, the Valley Bureau Human Trafficking Task Force made more than 500 arrests, issued more than 3,000 citations and rescued 10 human trafficking victims — eight were minors.
California State University, Northridge alumna and Los Angeles City Councilmember (Sixth District) Nury Martinez ’96 (Political Science) held a press conference on Jan. 26 at the corner of Sepulveda Boulevard and Valerio Street to highlight the recent successes of the trafficking task force — and share future plans to fight human trafficking in the area.
“The reason we’ve developed this team is primarily because of the lives we are saving, but also because of the community we are restoring,” Martinez said. “My job as a councilmember is to protect all children in all of our neighborhoods.”
Martinez established the task force in 2015 and collaborated with Henrik Minassians, CSUN professor of urban studies and planning, and David Lopez, professor of sociology. The group researched the connections between crime patterns and environmental conditions in the district, to curb human trafficking.
“It has been an honor for us at the university to work with the community,” Minassians said. “[We] looked specifically at how this environment has been utilized by prostitutes, johns and pimps, and came up with specific recommendations such as tree trimming, adding more streetlights and [other] basic strategies.”
For more than eight months, Minassians and Lopez worked with CSUN students and the local community to identify ways to increase neighborhood safety. The research included the east and west sides of Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys, and explored the property of residential areas, local businesses, schools and churches — which often provided dark and unguarded spaces for criminal activities at night.
“This is a long-standing problem that’s faced this area for decades, [and] we’ve realized that there is not a silver bullet solution we could use to solve this problem,” said Lt. Marc Evans, with the Los Angeles Police Department’s vice unit. “But the partnerships we’ve established will go a long way to help solve this problem in the long term.”
The CSUN study evaluated the need for additional streetlights in nearly 40 locations, tree trimming in nine locations and installing physical barriers such as fences at various abandoned and neglected areas in the district. The city started work on the improvements in mid-January and will continue for the next months.
“For community safety in the long term, it’s about environmental change, and I applaud Cal State Northridge for the tremendous work that they did in collecting data,” said Bob Green, deputy chief for the LAPD.
The latest rescue of a victim and minor — a 15-year-old girl — in early January, Martinez said, is indicative of a disturbing trend: The age of young women trafficked in the Valley has fallen in recent years. In most cases, the girls have no adult to turn to and no way to seek help, while being forced into a life of prostitution, she said.
“For anyone who is watching us here today, I want to make it clear that our children are not for sale,” Martinez said. “These neighborhoods don’t welcome you if this is the kind of activity you’re going to engage in — and we’re going to make sure to fight this crime in our neighborhood.”
Martinez stressed the importance of community engagement in the fight against human trafficking. To report tips related to prostitution-related crimes, the Valley Bureau Human Trafficking Task Force created the email address firstname.lastname@example.org, where community members are encouraged to submit details and report suspicious behavior or environments. These types of tips have helped the LAPD identify and build cases against arrested pimps and johns.
“When you’re 12 years old and you are being trafficked by grown men who are most likely gang members and are profiting from a 12-year-old being trafficked in these neighborhoods, that’s just simply not OK,” Martinez said. “Not here, not anywhere in our country, not anywhere in the world.”