Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Christopher Baughman is a member of Metro Police’s Pandering Investigation Team (PIT), the unit within vice that investigates crimes related to human trafficking and prostitution. He’s seen more than his fair share of gritty crime scenes and broken lives, some of which he’s documented in his new book, “Off the Street.”
Metro was criticized years ago for arresting and rearresting prostitutes and never going after the pimps behind them. PIT helped change that.
We didn’t have detectives in place for that sort of thing, for whatever reason, until my lieutenant, Karen Hughes, put it together. We started putting together cases that could actually get convictions. It wasn’t easy figuring out how to do that because there are guys who have been doing it years and years. We started partnerships with the IRS and going after these guys for whatever we could. We built a collective of people who all have the same passion and who understand that these are intelligent, manipulative criminals.
People don’t know that?
A lot of people see “pimp” and think Snoop Dogg or Ice-T. They think of funny hats, big shoes and a charming guy who can get a girl to do anything, but these guys are psychopaths. They have a whole lot to lose, and they are not stupid. These aren’t guys chasing down women in an alley for $10. We are talking about people making a ton of money. They are connected to business owners and judges sometimes.
Early in your book, you have a pimp pulling in a million dollars a year through only two women.
Yes, and a million dollars can buy a very good defense attorney. If our team doesn’t cross every single T, we could lose that case … We have to do whatever it takes.
Do you think trafficking and pimping are bigger issues in Las Vegas than anywhere else?
Las Vegas is definitely the place to be. There is so much money in a small area. You can hide in plain sight here. Where else can a 22-year-old drive down the street in a Maserati and nobody pays attention? We’ve sort of opened the door for a lot of bad people to come here.
Did you always want to be a cop?
I always wanted to do something for my community, but I never thought I would be a cop. Where I grew up, police were bad. I ended up working in parks and recreation. My dad was the one who said to me, “You need a real job. You have the right personality to succeed. You are going to change the world.” You know, father talk. I resisted, but eventually I tested just to get him off my back. I also applied to be a mailman, but it was the police department that called me back.
When did it sink in that this is your calling?
Once I got to vice, I think. All these old ghosts started coming back up, like seeing my friend’s mom get beaten when I was a kid. I got a taste of how satisfying it is to destroy people who go out of their way to hurt women, and it was, like, I get it. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. It all made sense. I couldn’t do anything to help my mom’s friend as a kid, but in vice, I realized this is where I can do something.
Are you able to gauge success?
I am not a stats guy, so I don’t know numbers, but I’m hearing from girls all over the country. They’ll call me and say, “Hey, I was at the bar the other day and I heard a guy say he wasn’t going to come to Vegas because there’s this team, so I’m going to Miami instead.” There’s that.
So the girls you’ve helped stay in contact?
All the time — they will call me up to tell me they just had a baby, or they moved back home to be with their family. We have one girl in college, getting her degree in law because she wants to fight these bad guys. Sometimes the girls still have contact with people still involved with prostitution and they’ll call us with tips or information.
That must be gratifying. On the flip side, what is the worst part about your job?
To hear someone say, “I don’t know if I trust you.” A lot of these women are so afraid.
What prompted you to write this book?
I felt like I wasn’t doing as much as I could. You see enough terrible things and you have to do something about it. That’s what I am doing. I am going to keep going after traffickers, but maybe there’s something else I can do. I felt like it was the right thing to do.
Yes, people are so dismissive. They say, “Oh, she is just a prostitute.” Or, “She is a drug addict so she had it coming.” People never stop to look at where she came from. When people are talking about prostitution and victims of trafficking, guys use a lot of expletives and derogatory terms. Officers do it, too. All over the country I’ve heard them; that’s just the way they talk. All that does is reinforce the lies the traffickers tell them, like that police don’t give a damn. And you can’t blame them.
How hard was it for you to revisit experiences when you were writing?
It was hell. Hell. I always write alone. I would go away from my family. I would sit down and have to remember some of these scenes. I was in tears writing some of them. It brings up every painful thing that I’ve ever had to deal with, but I am just telling the story. I wasn’t the one being choked.
You said earlier you know firsthand how it feels to not trust cops. What happened?
This is actually a scene in the book. I was out practicing basketball one day, because, like every kid, I thought basketball was going to be what got me and my family out of the projects. It was a typical summer day in Las Vegas. Suddenly, two police cars roll up. The brakes screeched and they start yelling, “Where’s your gun? I know you have a gun.” They’re pointing their guns at me. They pushed me onto the hot ground and my skin was burning. I was crying. They said things, stuff you shouldn’t hear as a kid.
What’s been the best response from someone who’s read the book?
I had an officer come to the signing and tell me he didn’t think he was going to learn anything from my book but it blew his mind. I had another officer say he felt like he could do his job better after reading the book. That is pretty neat.
What about the pimp you write about in the book?
He hasn’t read it. Maybe I’ll send him a copy in prison.
A version of this story first appeared in Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication to the Sun.