Night Shifts Newsletter No. 7

 Why is it important to retain correct definitions of ‘human trafficking’ in laws and new legislation?

Bill Woolf can’t get into details about the lawsuit filed in October 2021 against his former employer because it’s not adjudicated yet, but he suggests that I Google it. So I do. Turns out that when he served with the Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia, Woolf was the lead investigator and only officer assigned to work on the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, for which the department had received a half-million-dollar grant.

“During my tenure in law enforcement, it came to light that my direct supervisor was actually involved in trafficking and trying to shut down my investigations,” he informs.

An article in the December 22, 2021 issue of The Daily Beast says that, “In one instance, the suit claims, a lieutenant threatened a detective [Woolf] who raised concerns, telling him to ‘keep [his] mouth shut and don’t utter the words “human trafficking” again.’”

The article continues: “According to the suit, Woolf’s fellow officers looked down on his work with trafficking victims, saying they were not real crime victims and disparaging him as a ‘social worker.’”

The suit arose when a trafficking survivor claimed that Woolf’s former immediate supervisor and other officers allowed her traffickers to operate unchecked in exchange for sexual favors in an alleged cover-up. She later amended the suit to allege that the officers threatened Woolf to remain silent about the coverup of the sizable protection racket. In 2017, he left the Fairfax Police Department, where he started as a police officer in 2002 and had been a detective since 2010.

Although Woolf has not commented about the suit publicly, the plaintiff’s attorney, Vic Glasberg, told Daily Beast senior reporter Emily Shugerman that he spoke to him at length about his former department after filing the original complaint.

“Frankly, I view him as a latter-day Serpico,” Glasberg said, referring to the Al-Pacino-film famous NYPD whistleblower.

I won’t dig into extensive detail about the case here because, well, you can Google it, too. Or at least read the hyperlinked article. What I did discuss with Woolf, now principal of The Bill Woolf Group in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area, was his expansive efforts to stop human trafficking and how that experience with his direct supervisor and police force led to the formation of The Restoring Justice Project. 

He was a founding member of Anti Trafficking International in 2013, served as Executive Director of the nonprofit until December 2019, and was named to the board in 2022. He has also worked in various positions at the Department of Justice, including more than a year as Director of Human Trafficking. For his accomplishments in the field, Woolf received the Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons.

“The Restoring Justice Project is really focused around being able to provide remedies to those who have been wronged by the criminal justice system during their trafficking and to advocate for change there,” Woolf says. 

Although Woolf says that a significant number of law enforcement officers are committed to the issue of combating human trafficking, there are also some individuals who occasionally take advantage of the situation. 

“That becomes problematic because it ends up fueling the industry itself,” he says. “It also creates barriers for the victims to exit that exploitation, if they believe police are involved and are afraid to reach out to law enforcement.”

Regarding the question of whether or not prostitution should be legalized or sex work decriminalized, he is not in favor of either. His reasoning is based on his law enforcement experiences and also consulting projects he’s done in Europe. 

“I’ve worked with the government of The Netherlands where it is legalized,” he relates. “We found that it actually increases trafficking and exploitation and makes it even harder to identify because now you’re trying to weed it out without a legalized system, so it becomes much more challenging, and there is a great deal of victimization there.”

Woolf is a proponent of the Nordic Model that targets Johns by emphasizing a focus on prosecuting the demand side for prostitutes or full-service sex workers. Of course, independent sex workers who are not being trafficked say that just prevents them from finding customers and earning their living, at this point, whether their work is legal or not, depending on their location.

When I ask if he believes that some sex workers are able to work safely and independently without the aid of a pimp or other go-between and that women especially should have the right to control their own bodies, he expresses several concerns about consenting sex workers.

“I would argue that the vast majority of those who say that is the life they choose, somewhere in the 95 to 98% of those individuals have either been victims of trafficking or exploitation or of prior abuse as children, through domestic violence or in their lives,” he reasons. “That violence has shaped how they view themselves, how they view their bodies, their self-worth, and that needs to be part of the conversation.”

He adds that no matter what the person believes about their right to sell their bodies, there are moral complications. For example, married men are often the primary patrons of sex workers, and it can cause irreparable damage to their marriages. 

Additionally, for Woolf, it’s still a form of enslavement. “If I’m going to seek pleasure by paying to do whatever I want with someone else’s body, I’m putting a price on that individual, and that becomes problematic,” he says. He highly recommends that I check out created by clinical psychologist Melissa Farley, a somewhat controversial figure who comes to the topic with a radical feminist perspective.

Woolf is deeply involved in federal policy work on Capitol Hill. One of his primary efforts is to protect against the removal of language that defines sex trafficking in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). Advocates for decriminalization, he says, are aggressively lobbying to have such language removed. Though it was enacted astonishingly late in our Land of the Free, that law “equipped the U.S. Government with new tools and resources to mount a comprehensive and coordinated campaign to eliminate modern forms of slavery domestically and internationally.”

“We’re also working to add protections into the law and specifically call out vulnerable populations and have the legislators identify that yes, there are vulnerable populations that deserve protections,” he says. “So we’re trying to elevate awareness around that.”

Mainly, they are making sure that legislators hear both sides of the argument, he adds, and that victims of trafficking have access to critical services that they may not if prostitution is legalized. He and his colleagues work to offer the law enforcement practitioner viewpoint and ensure that legislators are fully informed when considering legislation.

“In practice, we explain that this is how this law is going to impact victims or frontline professionals engaged in the fight to stop trafficking,” Woolf states. “So, we analyze proposed legislation, and then fight back on things that don’t make sense.”

The example he offers is Safe Harbor laws that were enacted to protect children who were arrested for prostitution and pointed out the absurdity of charging a minor with prostitution who did not have the maturity to understand what it was or make a rational decision to participate. Therefore, there is no such thing as a child prostitute, only children who are compelled into commercial sex by an adult so should not be charged for such offenses. 

“The well-meaning legislative fixes that were proposed offered no alternatives,” he explains. “So, if law enforcement encountered a 16-year-old child engaged in commercial sex at 2 am, if they didn’t have the authority to take that person into custody under a prostitution statute, then what were they supposed to do? So we work with advocates and legislators to help them envision comprehensive solutions that consider and evaluate the whole problem.”

Among his numerous and diverse activities, Woolf also serves on the board of the Safe House Project as a consultant. In that role, he has worked closely with Alia Dewees [See Newsletter #2.], collaborating with her to create a TVPA Definitions Paper.

Also of interest is Safe House’s 2022 Impact Report about the extensive successes they are achieving by assisting survivors of sex trafficking in recovering their lives and their safe, economic independence.  Since prostitution laws vary state by state, Woolf helped the organization develop its State Resource Guides.

“We need to have diversity of opinions,” Woolf concludes. “But we also need to have some honest, informed conversations around this issue and bring science into it to look at it more effectively and come up with some solutions.”

Next up: Jeanne Li, a full-service sex worker and a member of the Cleveland Sex Workers Alliance.