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Tracking supply and demand in human trafficking: the STANDD initiative Part 2

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Jonathan M. Norris/Jonathan M. Norris
University of Alabama Photography
Blackmon Moody Award 2023, Blackmon Moody, Presidents Mansion, 2023, Award reception, Award Winner 2023, Award winner

In part one of this series, we discussed the STANDD initiative and what they do. In this episode, we will discuss human sex trafficking, the problem itself.

Inspector Jessica Wilson is with UAPD and the West Alabama Trafficking Task Force. “So, I know most people that don't have a lot of education about trafficking, their first response would be, oh, it starts with kidnapping, or it starts with an abduction. And that's really not true, less than one percent are actually abducted or kidnapped, which means that it's someone that they know. Generally, they've built a close relationship with this person. With juveniles in particular, we see a lot of kids that have run away, whether they've run away from home or from a foster care type situation, and they really don't have the resources to meet their basic needs, right? So, they don't have food, they don't have shelter. And so there are people out there, unfortunately, who will take advantage of that. And so, you know, 'you can sleep on my couch, but it's not free.' And that, in essence, is how trafficking begins. Because when we're talking about a minor, we don't have to have that force fraud, or coercion present, it's simply a sex act in exchange for something of value. And at that time, what they value is meeting their basic needs.”

1905038, May open-studio headshots, day 2, shot 05-14-19
Bryan Hester/Bryan Hester - University of Alabama Photography
University of Alabama Photography
1905038, May open-studio headshots, day 2, shot 05-14-19

Dr. Nicholas Freeman is with the STANDD initiative. “I mean, a lot of what we see is substance related, right? So, you know, maybe people have, you know, some type of a substance abuse problem or an addiction problem,” he said, “and then, you know, pieces of life might fall apart, you know, due to, because of that dependency. They maybe can't, you know… aren't successful holding their job or whatnot…but they need the substance, but there's the money piece… So, then it's like, okay, well… We see cases where, you know, it's like… 'I'll provide, but this is what you're going to do in return.'”

Inspector Jessica Wilson also mentioned the drug issue. “Generally,” she said, “a lot of our victims are either users or addicted to drugs. Most commonly, we see like meth, ecstasy, the things that will allow them to stay up for a very long time, because they need to be making money during the hours that most of us are asleep and so sometimes the trafficker use that addiction as their form of control.” Inspector Wilson also mentioned how it sometimes begins. “…It was a group home that she was in, and she had met this guy when she was at a gas station. And he just walked up to her. And she said that he looked exotic, because he had, you know, tattoos all over his face, and just, you know, the certain brand of clothing that is known to be an expensive brand and so, he was immediately able to just woo her and make her feel loved. Another case we had was similar. She was 18 and she had been kicked out of the house by mom and so, she meets a guy online and that's how the relationship started.”

Dr. Bott is also with the STANDD initiative. “Where you see a greater prevalence of drugs, you'll see a greater correlation of trafficking because those things go hand in hand,” he said. Dr. Bott recognizes not only the importance of law enforcement in stopping this problem, but also the help of nonprofit organizations. “That's one of the things I want to mention is that the data that we collect is meant to help stop sex trafficking of course but we provide that not only to law enforcement, but to also our nonprofit partners, who in some cases are doing even more of the direct work that can use our data even more so than law enforcement.”

One of the main problems is helping the victims to understand that they have been victimized. This is often done through the help of nonprofit partners that work alongside the police.

Another member of the STANDD initiative is Doctor Burcu Keskin. “Our nonprofit partners had to conduct interviews with them, like for a long time,” she said, “like six to eight hours, sometimes 10 hours for them to understand the situations they have been in and how they were really victimized.”

“So, this one particular operation, a woman came in who had cigarette burns all around her neck,” said Dr. Bott. “…and was dropped off by her what she called boyfriend, which was really her pimp or trafficker, and was there to do a job and get collect and collect her money and give back to her boyfriend. And we could not convince her that she was in a bad situation that this was not voluntary that she was she was essentially being trafficked because it had the elements of trafficking, which is coercion in this case, right? She was being coerced to do this and clear signs of it and even with advocates who are well trained from Trafficking Hope they could not convince her that she was being trafficked.”

As you can see, the STANDD initiative has done its part to help law enforcement and it's proven extremely successful, but they're just getting started.

Jonathan M. Norris

“Right now, we are looking into creating communities like certainly legal activities seems to cluster in certain regions of the country, and they show different patterns. And we are trying to identify those particular patterns and identify those particular communities,” said Dr. Keskin. “So, that way we can actually maybe even tell the law enforcement in that particular region. Hey, guys, you should be collaborating with each other, you should be talking to each other to take this down.”

“I think every academic is looking to, you know, make a positive impact somewhere. And I mean, I mean, at the end of the day, we can say that we have positively impacted people's life and that that matters tremendously,” said Dr. Freeman.

And with that, Inspector Jessica Wilson has a final message for everyone.

“So, we address both the supply and the demand. We want people to know that without the demand, there would be no need for the supply and so, we want people to know that we exist and that the next time you respond to an ad for commercial sex, it could be a police officer that's waiting for you,” she said. “We also want to make contact with as many people involved in commercial sex as we can so that they're aware of the resources that are available to them. You know, they may not want help that day but a year from now, they might decide that they've had enough of that life, and they know where they can turn when that day comes.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing human trafficking or if you have information regarding this illegal activity, here are some resources to help you:

West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force: (205) 248-4750

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tipline: (866) 347-2423

National Human Trafficking Hotline: (888) 373-7888

Joe Moody is a senior news producer and host for Alabama Public Radio. Before joining the news team, he taught academic writing for several years nationally and internationally. Joe has a Master of Arts in foreign language education as well as a Master of Library and Information Studies. When he is not playing his tenor banjo, he enjoys collecting and listening to jazz records from the 1950s and 60s.
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