Tuscaloosa community, police combat human trafficking

The Tuscaloosa community and its police department have been working to help reduce incidents of human trafficking in the area. 

TPD discovered a woman suspected of prostitution on Jan. 21, and after an investigation, they arrested two men for transporting her to Tuscaloosa and promoting prostitution. In December 2017 an incident report was filed about a possible luring-away of a child from her parent at a local McDonald’s, which investigators found to be false. These two incidents demonstrate the Tuscaloosa community's concern about human trafficking. 

Worldwide, the human trafficking industry makes $150 billion per year with $99 billion of that money coming specifically from sex trafficking. Sex trafficking has been a huge problem for Alabama because I-20 is considered the super highway for sex trafficking in the United States. 

“Human trafficking has been allowed to flourish because it remains largely hidden from public view,” said Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Human trafficking and, in particular sex trafficking, is occurring every day in communities all across Alabama. The victims are often minors who have been lured into the most frightening and despicable abuses imaginable.” 

“We used to see the same eight or nine people around town being arrested for prostitution,” said said Sgt. Trent Kempster of the Tuscaloosa Police Department. “Now we know the situation is much larger and complex than it appears to be.” 

Kempster is part of a task force within TPD that deals with human trafficking. The department is hailed as one of the most effective in the state at combating human trafficking with many other cities asking them for help with training to deal with sex trafficking. Tuscaloosa has the only department in the state in which every officer is trained to recognize signs of sex trafficking.

Kempster said the department needs to protect the victims of sex trafficking and arrest the people who control them. 

“Before, the legal system saw prostitutes as women who were making the choice to have sex for money,” said Kempster. “Now we see that it’s completely different.”

As part of National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, efforts have been taken up statewide to combat the world’s second largest criminal industry. The Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, founded in 2014, held an awareness day on Jan. 11 and is holding its annual summit in early February.

“Our purpose is to promote awareness about human trafficking and legislation about it that would strengthen our human trafficking laws and to help provide assistance to trafficking victims,” said state representative Jack Williams (R-Montgomery), chairman of the task force. 

Williams has been working to pass legislation that will more effectively combat human trafficking in Alabama. 

“In 2010, when we passed our first human trafficking legislation, we became the 44th state to pass legislation of that nature, so Alabama was late to the party when it comes to combating human trafficking," Williams said. "But, we are making strides. We’re trying to cover loopholes in legislation and find ways to make certain that those who engage in the crime of trafficking are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and those who are victimized by trafficking have assistance to get their life on track.”

Additionally, the Tuscaloosa Police Department is starting their annual National Johns Suppression Initiative. With this initiative, sting operations involving female officers posing as prostitutes answer ads posted by men and arrest them. Within a two-week period, this initiative could lead to more than 40 arrests. In Alabama, 79 percent of human trafficking victims are women, however the number of men being exploited are rapidly rising. The average age of human trafficking victims is 12, according to TPD's trafficking task force.

Local communities are also banding together to fight human trafficking. The Church of the Highlands in Northport has begun working with the police department to help victims of human trafficking. Campus Coordinator Traci Hill works on public outreach to raise awareness about human trafficking.

“The first thing that we can do to fight human trafficking is educate people,” Hill said. “Many people have misconceptions about human trafficking. As people become more aware of the signs of human trafficking, it makes it harder for traffickers to do work here in Tuscaloosa. If our community is really aware of what to look for, Tuscaloosa becomes inhospitable for traffickers.”

Human trafficking also has a large impact on campus as well. Recently, criminals have been using online dating sites as portals for human trafficking. The social worker Susan Clements said some websites like Seeking Arrangements specifically target college students in debt. 

“These sites capitalize on the women’s needs,” said Clements. “They make it seem like women can get paid to simply go on dates, but once they become financially dependent on these men, these relationships can quickly turn into prostitution.”

Hill and Clements are working together to raise awareness in Tuscaloosa about human trafficking. With the large amount of people that come into town for sports events, the city can turn into a hub for human traffickers.

“The only common factor between cases of human trafficking is vulnerability,” said Hill. “Victims come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Human trafficking isn’t just something in other countries.”

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