Editor’s Note: CNN Freedom Project this week is reporting from the front lines in the fight against sex trafficking - not in the poverty-stricken developing world but in affluent Orange County near Los Angeles, where prostitutes are now treated as trafficking victims rather than criminals.
By Martin Savidge
Anaheim, California (CNN) - It feels odd to be in a car sat next to a guy texting a pimp. Even more odd, he's pretending to be a prostitute. It can all get a little strange in the digital pursuit of human traffickers.
I'm sitting in the front seat of an SUV in a part of Orange County, California only the locals see - where the hotels are not chains and have names that cops and criminals alike know well. The "prostitute" beside me is actually Sergeant Craig Friesen.
Nearby, either parked or patrolling, are four other vehicles holding the rest of his undercover team.
Earlier, we saw a pickup truck in a parking lot across the street approaching several women. The guy wasn't having much luck - which was too bad since he was on Friesen's crew.
Over the radio the detective relayed that after propositioning one lady she did offer a sex act - telling him he should go F$@# himself.
It's an example of how prostitution can bring down a neighborhood, making it so a woman can't go to the store without being harassed by some john who's looking for sex.
Despite the area being known for the sex trade, things are slow. Either the team's cover was known or it was an off day. Every business has them.
Then the undercover cop in the pickup gets lucky. He picks up a petite African American girl wearing blue patterned shorts and top. They drive off and we fall in behind trailing at a distance in the noon hour traffic.
Out of nowhere a black and white police car pulls in behind the pickup. The lights flash, the "whoop, whoop" sounds and the pickup is pulled over. Friesen guns the SUV, roaring past the scene and into a nearby alley.
We get out and head back to what appears to be a busted undercover operation but the sergeant's not upset - this is all part of the plan.
Friesen has the girl take a seat on the curb as the patrol car blocks her from passing traffic. He comes down to her level and begins the most important part of the whole operation - he needs to earn her trust and her confidence.
He begins by explaining she's not under arrest. It's in keeping with the new attitude of law enforcement that prostitutes are victims, controlled and manipulated by their pimps. They are caught up in the worldwide plague of human trafficking. And they try to help the victims escape.
Friesen is trying to get the woman to turn her pimp in. Eventually, Friesen tells her, she will be brought back to police headquarters and placed in the care of social services, who will offer her a place to live and a way off the street so she's not dependent on the pimp for her needs.
The young woman listens but doesn't buy it. She stays silent. Eventually Friesen gives up and she is taken away. But the sergeant has hung on to her cell phone.
He sees texts on the phone that appear to come from her pimp, and he responds as if he is the woman. Which is how I came to be seated in an SUV in Anaheim with a prostitute, um, pretend prostitute.
Since her guy thinks she's gone off with a client, Friesen waits a while, then sends the message that the client left her at a hotel and she needs the pimp to pick her up. He gives the location as a hotel Friesen and his team have already staked out.
A reception committee of several armed officers waits inside the hotel, other spotters are nearby, and Friesen and I are parked across the street as he continuously sends messages to the pimp. "He left come get me."
Then there's a problem.
The pimp texts back he wants her to call him which, of course, Friesen can't do. He quickly improvises and texts back the phone has a problem: "My phone trippin'" and she can only text.
He knows it's a weak ploy... But what else can he do? The fingers still fly and the digital conversation goes on, but it becomes pretty clear the pimp is suspicious.
The team continues to wait, but after an hour the pimp's a no-show and the texts stop coming. The operation is finally called off.
Months later, through phone records and surveillance, they finally turn this virtual conversation into a real arrest.
But although they think they have the man who they suspect is forcing a young woman into prostitution, the district attorney's office doesn't find enough evidence to make charges stick, and the man is let go.
The end result is something Friesen and his team have grown to accept. A young woman was pulled off the street and offered the opportunity for help. Sometimes that's all you can hope for.