Deputy Andy Conner always knew that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter law enforcement. But it wasn’t until he began patrolling one of Seattle’s most infamous sex trafficking zones that he discovered how deeply his work would ultimately affect the lives of others.
Conner didn't have a straight path to police work. Growing up in a close-knit community in California, Conner, now 45, was passionate about his family and about playing football, which earned him a scholarship to the University of Oregon. Soon after graduating, he signed with the Seattle Seahawks and relocated to begin his NFL career. He married his wife, Laura, in 1994, and was signed to the St. Louis Rams in 1995.
However, it was the end of his time in the NFL -- thanks to a shoulder injury incurred just before his first season with the Rams began -- that led him back to Seattle to pursue his original intention of becoming an officer of the law. He signed on as King County Sheriff 17 years ago and began patrolling SeaTac, an outlying suburb of Seattle.
“When I first came to SeaTac, I dealt with a lot of drug enforcement, gangs and stuff like that,” Conner told The Huffington Post. “But then I started seeing all of the girls out there.”
He spent his evening shifts arresting countless prostitutes walking along the Pacific Highway, the same stretch where Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” picked up his victims throughout the 1980s and 1990s. King County law enforcement agencies relied heavily on Conner and his skills for acting on the area’s comprehensive and challenging “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” law.
But one night in 2005, an encounter with two girls led Conner to view prostitution in an entirely new light. He picked up two young prostitutes whom he had arrested at least a dozen times each in the previous month. He had arrested hundreds of prostitutes, but these two girls -- who were minors -- struck a chord with him.
“I finally said, ‘I’m tired of seeing you guys out here,’” said Conner. In response, the girls asked him for help.
“I told them to just quit,” he said. “And unfortunately today, that’s the mentality too -- that they can just leave and quit and walk away from it.” But the girls told Conner that no matter how much they may want to leave prostitution, they didn’t have anyone or anything to make it possible.
“That changed things for me because I was a police officer,” said Conner. “I was supposed to help people.”
According to the Department of Justice, the most frequent age of entry for girls in the commercial sex industry is just 12 to 14 years old. Seventy to 90 percent of child prostitutes experience abuse prior to being tricked, forced or coerced into prostitution, according to New York-based Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, which provides support for girls and young women who've experienced sexual exploitation and trafficking. One of the fastest growing criminal industries in the United States, sex trafficking threatens the lives of 100,000 - 300,000 children each year, GEMS reports.
Conner conducted research to find a program for these girls and others like them, but he realized one simply didn’t exist. There was support for domestic violence, drug addition and other issues, but nothing as comprehensive as these girls would need to fully start over their lives from scratch.
“Those were the only two girls out of hundreds over the last several years that ever asked me for help,” said Conner. “But they were the catalysts for everything.”
Several months later, Conner encountered a 17-year-old girl who was loitering along the same streets. The girl told him that when she was 12, her father, who was dealing drugs, pulled her out of school and began selling her to his friends. After he was arrested and imprisoned for drug-related crimes, the girl was left out on the street to fend for herself, hopping from one pimp to the next to survive. She didn’t even know where her mother was -- she assumed she was dead. For Conner, the girl's story helped shed light on the fact that for many of these young women, prostitution wasn't the choice people perceive it to be.
“She was clearly forced into the life and didn’t want to be there, but she had no way of getting out,” he said. “She was devastated from the inside out, she had no structure, no nothing. So that was it for me, I was done. I decided I was going to do something about it.”
Conner brought up his concerns to his supervisors and suggested the need for a shelter or home that could help protect these girls. They dismissed it as a victimless crime and told him not to worry about it, Conner said. He began researching grants and other options, but without personal or financial support, he was forced to table the idea.
For the next four years, when Conner met girls on the streets who he had probable cause to arrest, he didn't immediately place them in handcuffs. Since prostitution is considered "a crime against the state," officers are allowed to practice discretion when they pick someone up who doesn't have a warrant out for his or her arrest -- in other words, officers can make a judgment call.
Conner began asking the girls if they'd be willing to tell him about their lives instead of being arrested. He began collecting stories, learning about prostitution, the roles of all involved, and what these girls would truly need to leave that world behind.
“There’s a handful of girls I’ve come across who got started on their own because people told them they could make money, but 99.9 percent were either coerced or forced or tricked into it at some point,” said Conner. “Nobody ever started out wanting to do this.”
In 2009, on a patrol of SeaTac, Conner noticed a block party of sorts that included a food bank and clothing giveaway. A woman from Conner's church who was volunteering at one of the tables told him about the Corridor, a local nonprofit that was hosting the event, and invited him to one of the board meetings. During the meeting, they asked Conner what he thought the area needed help with the most.
And unlike the police department years earlier, the group was completely on board with Conner's idea to help young girls escape prostitution.
Conner wanted to start a home that would offer counseling, vocational training and other services to young girls trying to leave the streets. He called it the Genesis Project.
Just as the Genesis Project was raising funds for the home, the Corridor lost its support. However, Conner was able to take over the Corridor's building, and transfer their nonprofit status to his new endeavor. On Aug. 31, 2011, the doors of the Genesis Project opened in South King County.
Now, when Conner's unit goes out on patrol, they're able to offer young prostitutes a place to go other than a jail cell. Some of the girls say they aren’t ready, and some don’t think they can trust the police. But some take the chance.
Conner remains a full-time police officer, but he's also the executive director for the Genesis Project. Performing both duties wears him out, but his faith keeps him going, he said.
“I’ve been given a lot of my life, and I have a lot of support and support structures, so I want to give back in the same way,” he said. “I think my ideas and my vision and my graciousness toward these girls is not my own -- it comes from God, and so I want to be respectful of that and be a good steward of it.”
Conner's wife and three sons adopted the project right along with him as he learned how to run a nonprofit from scratch. Laura Conner is a staff member with the nonprofit, while the boys volunteer regularly. Together, they faced a six-month investigation in 2013 due to false fraud accusations. Conner's name was cleared, but the Genesis Project lost volunteers, funding and donors through that painful process. Today, the family is steadily rebuilding, and the Genesis Project continues to help girls in need.
“It puts a lot in perspective,” said Conner of the investigation. “I got a taste of what the girls had gone through and continue to go through, and I have much more heart for them these days than even back then. I learn all the time from them. I have girls who are doing very well right now because we stuck with it, and I’m so glad we did.”
Every year, Conner and his team host a 5K Freedom Walk and auction to help fund their nonprofit and raise more awareness about what sex trafficking truly means. They’ve served 121 victims to date. This month, the Genesis Project opened its first anti-trafficking coffee stand. The store will provide girls with job skills along with a paycheck.
Conner has also worked with two film producers who came to him with an interest in sharing the lives of these girls with the rest of the world. The resulting documentaries, Rape for Profit and the upcoming The Long Night, showcase the life of prostitution in South King County and how the Genesis Project serves as a resource for young women, should they choose to take it.
“It’s about looking at these girls and seeing the true victim in somebody,” said Conner. “This so much more deep and so much more complicated -- there’s so much more of a truer victim here. It is modern slavery, just a different type.”