Imagine being face-to-face with someone who could help and set you free away from this life you were forced into. Now imagine that person overlooking all the clues and then being taken away from the doorway to freedom, all because that person didn’t know what to look for. They didn’t know you were a captive of sex trafficking.
Situations like this are what many organizations and law enforcement agencies are working to prevent. Since trafficking can occur in all communities, agencies are trying to provide the best resources for victims.
Training the hotel industry
Training hotel and motel employees has been a starting point in combating trafficking. More hotels are posting signs regarding trafficking and behavior to watch for — not only piquing awareness in staff but also in visitors.
Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner wants his town to be the first municipality in the state of New York to proactively train hotel staff about the signs of human trafficking before a new state law could require it.
A law in Greenburgh has also enabled the closure of unlicensed massage facilities, an avenue where trafficked victims could be funneled toward a life of exploitation. The town has also worked with the FBI on cases where underaged children were forced into prostitution.
“The hotels are open to the training we’ve done on criminal and terrorist aspects,” explained Detective Richard Cunningham. “They welcome it because they don’t want this activity at their business. The training is transferred from management to the employees. We don’t want them profiling a certain group, but rather look at behaviors.”
Through Operation Safeguard, the Greenburgh police’s hotel training program, people can see a list of potential indicators of human trafficking and call the police about suspicious activity. The program teaches the hotel staff what to look for in their work areas, from housekeeping and room service to front desk and food and beverage. Though it may not be a complete list of suspicious activities, it highlights key behaviors.
“The police have been giving this attention for at least nine years. Now we’re intensifying it,” Feiner stated. “I think a lot of people realize that sex trafficking has been going on for years, centuries even, and you’ll never stop it, but you can limit it as much as possible. We have to get the police the resources they need.”
Tackling trafficking with great force
The state of Minnesota passed a law requiring hotel staff to receive online training for signs of human trafficking once a year. Some places have developed other programs on top of hotel training, such as designated task force, to make more headway in their area.
The Central Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force, located in St. Cloud and consisting of detectives from area departments, put a high priority on education and community outreach. The force has performed various trainings with local police departments, hospitals, schools and other organizations to create awareness.
While the task force is still relatively new, its presence has been able to break the barrier of whether or not trafficking should be openly discussed in departments and in other public areas. Creating awareness of the issue is the first, most important step in every community and municipality. Resources that most had been unaware of came to light and brought organizations together to combat trafficking.
Some may disagree, but from Waite Park officer and investigator of CMHTTF Jason Thompson’s perspective, educating young children about the issue is one way to put an end to it. With kids as young as 11-years old being exploited, it makes sense that they deserve to be aware of trafficking.
Of all the challenges that could present themselves, dealing with the impression that trafficking wasn’t happening in Waite Park, Minn., was the biggest obstacle. Because it isn’t often discussed, some towns and cities have the misconception that sex trafficking only happens in large bustling cities.
“You have to go out and look for it,” explained Thompson. “When Chief (Dave) Bentrud came here about this problem, there were a lot of people saying that it wasn’t happening in our community because we’re a small area with a combined population of maybe 100,000. But we started looking. It was amazing what we found and what was going on.”
Sometimes the trafficker and victim may appear to be a couple to outsiders, which is why training becomes imperative. Thompson continued, “I’ve been a police officer here for almost 17 years. I’ve been investigating these types of crimes for the last six. I missed so many things early on, before I knew and before I had the training — before anybody was really talking about it. I advise lots of training. It’s out there, everywhere. We’re finding it in the smallest cities in Stearns County with a population of 400.”
Through a grant, Waite Park has afforded to have Thompson work with the task force full time in St. Cloud while filling his position in Waite Park. Thompson is available to return to Waite Park for major crimes, but the department typically refrains from calling him away from the task force.
Chief Bentrud stated, while there’s a chance for them to receive another grant, the city has to “step up and make this part of its regular operating budget.”
The task force itself has gained support from the community, making a cause everyone can get behind. Thompson commented that he received training hosted by the Dallas Police Department, which discussed a high-risk youth program and how those youths have a higher potential to be targeted for trafficking. That prompted Thompson to approach the county attorney about adopting a similar program.
“We attack this from three perspectives,” informed Thompson. “Washington state has a great model where it attacks demand to reduce trafficking through demand. While we attack our demand, we also investigate the trafficker and have victim recovery. We’ve done training for municipalities in the area. We’re getting out there and helped a number of agencies by setting up buyer detail as well as victim recovery.”
Helping victims with recovery
A unique aspect about Waite Park is that the city oversees a home, or shelter, that provides crisis beds for victims. Receiving proper care can lead victims on the road to recovery and break the cycle of trafficking. It also transitions victims into the world where they have the potential to live a regular life.
In a case of being at the right place at the right time, Chief Bentrud secured a large home for victims. Th e city allows Terabith Refuge to hold their victim recovery program in the home, rent-free until a larger shelter is built.
“In my 26 years in law enforcement, the work we’ve done in sex trafficking has been some of the best multi-jurisdictional and multidisciplinary work I’ve been a part of,” said Bentrud. “It’s amazing to see how many different disciplines have come together to work on this issue, and I think that’s spilled over into other areas like mental health.” When asked how such an opportunity presented itself, Bentrud reported that it was acquired due to the city building a new public works facility and putting in a new road. The abandoned house property had been bought by the city, making it a win-win situation for everyone.
The shelter ensures that victims are safe, protecting them from being assaulted or even killed on the street for providing information to law enforcement. Unfortunately traffickers manipulate victims into believing that they’ll be arrested if they come forward with their situation, creating distrust and fear. Advocates at Terabith mend the bridge by immediately starting work with the victim, addressing their trauma and mental stability while assisting law enforcement by gaining information.
Support from the local community has been unyielding as various businesses, organizations and private citizens have donated time and money to assist Terabith. Overall, the impact has been positive and the shelter fits right in with the rest of the neighborhood.
“I absolutely think other municipalities could do something like this,” Bentrud commented. “You have to think outside the box for how you might do this. There are opportunities out there to work with the business community or private citizens. Individuals have property or assets they could donate. It’ll take some groundwork, but you could create those opportunities”