Busting drug dealers, sex traffickers and prostitutes is a tough job. Recently retired Sergeant Kathy Lacey did that dangerous work for 20 years as the head of Anchorage Police Department’s undercover vice unit. Lacey says when she first started in law enforcement, prostitution and drug crimes were more visible, out on the street. Now though, she says trafficking is more covert.
TOWNSEND: What attracted you to vice?
LACEY: The way it works is the first thing you do is patrol. On patrol you see everything. Its all thrown at you and after a few years, you find your interest. I was always drawn to the street level crimes, drugs, prostitution. I grew up in Spenard, that was a hot bed of street crimes and I was comfortable working in that area. I took that career path.
TOWNSEND: Had you worked in law enforcement before?
LACEY: History in public safety, my brother was a former fire chief for Anchorage, my sister was a deputy chief. It was my younger brother, Chris said, hey APD is hiring, why don’t you check it out. I got in the academy and liked it. it was challenging and physical and mental ability and I took to it like a duck to water. I have a nephew now on the department. We were always drawn to public safety.
TOWNSEND: Did you initially focus on prostitution or drugs?
LACEY: It was all hand in hand, in the old days, if you wanted to know what was going on on the street, you talked to the women who worked in the sex trade, they were the ones who knew where the crack houses were.
TOWNSEND: How has sex trafficking changed?
LACEY: A lot more sophisticated, more cash, more money, internet has exploded. The old days, visible, women on the street, everybody saw it, we worked those women, now it’s more behind closed doors, the traffickers have more money at stake, it’s more difficult, requires more to figure out who traffickers are.
TOWNSEND: Are there recruiters going to rural Alaska?
LACEY: Yes, we had a case specifically where the trafficker was going to villages to recruit, what level, how many, it’s difficult to say because so much is happening that is hidden, but absolutely he was doing that.
TOWNSEND: What about traffickers from outside the state?
LACEY: Yes, we’ve seen that a lot. We’ve made arrests of women, sometimes with the trafficker, sometimes alone, they put money on a card and he can pull it out in another state.
TOWNSEND: Are any of the victims trafficked in Alaska taken out of state?
LACEY: Not seeing that but in the massage parlor circuit, they move around, I don’t have information that they are being forced, but they’re being coerced.
TOWNSEND: How has the massage parlor aspect changed?
LACEY: It’s easy to make money as a trafficker in the massage parlor business. The only way you know is if someone goes in there and gets sex instead of a massage and there’s layers, someone has the license, someone else running. It’s hard to uncover it all. Its use has exploded.
TOWNSEND: It must have been frustrating, the facade of a legitimate business and online trafficking. How have you dealt with that frustration?
LACEY: It is frustrating and I had a fantastic group of detectives. The type drawn to this, it takes a lot, but when we get someone out of it, especially when it’s the underage kids. Its disturbing. We focus on getting them out and putting the trafficker behind bars.
TOWNSEND: Have the traffickers themselves changed? Is the treatment worse?
LACEY: Each case is individual; I think it stays about the same. People say let’s legalize this, its consenting adults, there’s a segment that says that and then there is what we see which is always a level of control and usually a level of violence between traffickers and the women they traffick. Always going to be coercion and a level of force. To keep them in line, often the trafficker will use force.
TOWNSEND: Are there areas of Alaska that are hot spots?
LACEY: Western Alaska, we’ve had more cases there than anywhere, there’s not one spot. Anchorage, and if we work it hard, they get pushed to Fairbanks, they might then force them somewhere else, they might go to the valley. Anchorage is the hub.
TOWNSEND: In 20 years of law enforcement, would you say the city, is the city becoming a more violent place beyond the demographics, the sexual assault rate is higher here and stays that way. Why do you think that is and looking back where are we now with the amount of violence now?
LACEY: I would say, it has become more violent. I know we’re seeing a real spike in violent crimes. I attribute that to deployment of the department. Drug crimes fuel property crimes. There’s been a shift away from these areas and I think that’s a mistake. You know where the elements are and you have to keep pressure on those factions or they start to escalate and I think we’ve seen that. There has to be a refocus on street crime suppression.
TOWNSEND: New mayor-elect Ethan Berkowitz – what would you want him to focus on immediately?
LACEY: From what I’ve heard of what he’s said, I think he’s very smart and he’s talked about reinstituting the gang unit and those are important steps. You have to have the staffing to make these things happen. Those units are really important to keep the overall crime rate down. He understands that, hiring more is key, and I’d like to see focus on retention of the officers they have. You have a lot of experience walking out the door and all the officers you hire aren’t going to make it through the training, let’s focus on retaining and that’s not happening, people are walking out the door and you’re losing all that experience. They’re missing the bet right there. I’m excited about what Berkowitz is talking about.
TOWNSEND: What advice would you give to parents to keep their kids safe?
LACEY: Be involved, ask questions. I have a daughter that just graduated from high school last week. You need to have discussions with your kids, what’s going on at their school. Ask their opinion, my daughter has good opinions. I see things that I think are inappropriate, she says no. I think it’s interesting to get their perspective. I talk to my kids about everything, they know about prostitution, they know about street level drugs. You have to be their voice of reason, they can get everything online.
TOWNSEND: There’s been a lot of back and forth about ‘Erin’s Law,’ legislation here has changed making it optional. What do you think is appropriate and should be in schools?
LACEY: I think we’re missing the boat by not getting to them sooner. They have the world at their fingertips on their cell phone and we need to talk to them. I worked with the STAR program and was shocked that they’re not in every school. I think it needs to be mandatory when its not there. We’re doing a disservice when we’re not having this discussion, look at our rates, why are we afraid to talk about it.
TOWNSEND: Consulting on “Frozen Ground” and exploring new avenues… tell me more.
LACEY: Approached by producers several years ago. They were interested in my vice work and sex trafficking. They are enamored of Alaska and see it as unique. They liked that it was an undercover unit run by a woman. It’s a way for me to continue my human trafficking work even though I’m no longer in law enforcement. JUST RAISING AWARENESS? Exactly, keep in mind it’s Hollywood…..
Retired APD Sergeant Kathy Lacey is now a consulting producer on a developing television series that will feature vice crime in Anchorage.