Various pieces of evidence are placed throughout the illicit massage business mock-ups at the California Cybersecurity Institute, including bras, condoms and cell phones. Kelly Jacobs | Mustang News

A small white room with dirty walls and thin mattresses strewn on the ground. Leftover takeout boxes piled up in a corner. On a wall to the right a table with names and dollar amounts. Clothes and shoes thrown all over the floor and a stale smell lingers in the air. For many victims of sex trafficking, this could be a reality.

The new California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) facility at Camp San Luis Obispo helps train law enforcement officers who tackle sex trafficking to prepare them for the job and increase the likelihood of prosecution.

Roughly 200 people have participated in CCI programs to date and it is the only program of its kind on the West Coast. Other courses are available for law enforcement, but lack the immersive training and digital forensics components.

Sex Trafficking in San Luis Obispo

In 2016, 1,051 cases of sex trafficking were reported in California, according to the California Department of Justice. According to the FBI, California is home to three of the top 13 cities where child sex trafficking is most prevalent: San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. San Luis Obispo has become a common location for sex trafficking as a halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“Through the years, we’ve really discovered that it’s more of a problem than we initially thought,” San Luis Obispo Police Department Captain Christopher Staley said.

The department has completed multiple sex trafficking sting operations in recent years. In a case from 2013, two underage, runaway girls were trafficked from Fresno, California and forced into prostitution. However, they were rescued after one girl managed to escape and was able to alert authorities.

Video by Jacob Foerster

This is not the case for all victims of sex trafficking in San Luis Obispo. Because San Luis Obispo is a tourist city, many victims go unnoticed.

“When you think about the issue of human trafficking, numbers are difficult to find because it’s lucrative and people are hidden behind closed doors,” CCI Business Services Coordinator Danielle Borelli said.

Law enforcement often has a difficult time proving human trafficking is occurring because of how difficult it is to provide evidence. Victims are controlled and manipulated by their traffickers and often do not want to testify against them out of fear.

Digital evidence such as online advertisements and communication on cell phones and laptops between traffickers and clients can provide important evidence for prosecution. It is important officers understand the latest technology and communication tools to idenitify and properly collect evidence.

The CCI Program

The CCI provides training courses in cyber security for law enforcement, first-responders, military officers and decision makers. One of the workshops the CCI hosted was in partnership with the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working to “eradicate modern slavery.” This four-day training for law enforcement specifically tackled ways to combat sex trafficking. Once training is complete, officers use the CCI’s “immersive training environments” to hone their skills.

The CCI built two replicas of illicit massage businesses, one resembling an apartment and one a brothel. Participants collect hard and digital evidence that could be used in court, such as text messages on phones between clients and victims.

Below is a virtual tour of one of the California Cybersecurity Institute’s Immersive Training Environments. Click the play button to explore and click on the blue circles to reveal details about the facility.

Matterport by Kelly Jacobs

Every detail in the room is taken into consideration to create an environment that is believable for participants.  Actors play victims, traffickers and clients while participants interview them and look for evidence. Condoms, shoes, clothes and bras are placed throughout the room to mimic the environment. Money is stuffed in empty pringles jars and expired air fresheners. Passports, makeup and leftover takeout boxes are scattered around the room giving participants important clues that sex trafficking is occurring.

CCI Interactive Communications Coordinator Ciera Dixon was part of the project team that built the illicit massage business replicas. Dixon previously worked for Disney in technology and operations and learned the importance of storytelling. She applies this principle when making these immersive training environments.

“You are building your own little world for people to suspend disbelief when entering the experience,” Dixon said. “The ways I go about doing this are by playing to the senses.”

As a Cal Poly affiliate, the CCI uses the Learn by Doing philosophy in its training courses.

“The biggest thing is that [law enforcement] feel better equipped. For many of these participants, this is the first time they are in such an environment. They had never had hands-on experience before and it really sets it apart for them that they are following the Learn by Doing pedagogy,” Borelli said.

The CCI has plans to use augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies to improve immersive training environments. Tools like these make it easy to customize an environment without having to completely rebuild and start from scratch. Participants will still get the full experience and have the ability to engage with different characters and gather evidence. Live actors are sometimes difficult to arrange and being able to use VR would eliminate the need for them.

There is no evidence yet that these trainings have affected rates of human trafficking because the CCI is training law enforcement from across the country and gathering data on human trafficking from various locations is challenging, according to Borelli.

Staley said it is important for the public to report anything that may seem suspicious. Tips to law enforcement can save a victim stuck in sex trafficking.

“If people see any suspicious activity, don’t hesitate to call the police department,” Staley said. “If something just doesn’t look right, don’t just ignore it.”

Correction: The original version of this article attributed the last quote to Danielle Borelli. It has been updated attributing Christopher Staley.

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