As Minneapolis and St. Paul police forces crack down on prostitution and human trafficking, pimps are moving some of their business to the suburbs, where law enforcement traditionally has been less tuned into the problem.

Now, the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and police departments are partnering to form a Human Trafficking Task Force to combat the emerging problem. They’ll have their first major training session in May.

“The bad guys know most [suburban] agencies aren’t working it. If they know another county doesn’t have anything in place, they move into it,” said Anoka County Sheriff Lt. Bryon Fuerst.

They have no additional funding for the task force, but they’ll pool resources, intelligence and manpower to pursue the criminals and help the women often coerced and intimidated into prostitution.

It’s not just sex crimes. Human trafficking includes illegal work houses and other slave-labor situations.

“We are just trying to branch out and get some help with partnerships in our county and be more proactive and address those types of investigations,” Fuerst said.

The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, which investigates all sex crimes in the county, is organizing the task force.

Following the money

Human trafficking investigations are about following the money and targeting the criminals who coerce vulnerable people into prostitution or forced labor, Fuerst said.

“It’s developing the information and backtracking it all to show the acts are occurring and that someone is profiting from them,” Fuerst said.

These investigations are technical and time-consuming. They often cross jurisdictions and can involve multistate sex rings, where prostitutes are regularly moved from city to city to provide a fresh supply of labor. Human trafficking investigations often involve computer forensics. The women and others forced to work are reticent to talk to police.

It’s a shift from traditional prostitution stings, where police arrest prostitutes and “johns,” cite them for a misdemeanor and release them.

“We are understanding how people are being victimized,” Fuerst said. “The people working as prostitutes are not necessarily doing it on their own free will. Someone else is profiting. There is abuse and coercion used to get people to continue to work.

“We are trying to get victims out of the environment, hold the people profiting accountable, and provide help and resources for the victims who got drawn into it,” Fuerst said. “I don’t think we were calling prostitutes victims 15 years ago.”

Local police say they support the mission of the task force because they see the problem drifting to the suburbs.

Coon Rapids police just started conducting prostitution stings last fall. Most of the johns busted are from outside the area.

“They probably feel a little safer out here. They haven’t heard we’re doing the same thing the big cities are doing,” said Coon Rapids Police Capt. John Hattstrom. “As Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis do these [prostitution busts], they get pushed out into neighboring communities. We don’t want that stuff here.”

Officers take time to interview the prostitutes caught in the busts and try to determine if they’re working under coercion. Fridley police also conduct regular prostitution stings. They, too, take the time to interview women.

But prostitution busts are not the only way human trafficking cases are developed. A school resource officer can get a tip about girls being recruited or a patrol officer can follow up on suspicious behavior.

“The smaller agencies can’t do these investigations by themselves. When a situation develops in any of these cities, we can call on the people involved on the task force to help,” said Fridley Police Lt. Mike Monsrud.

He’s had officers travel across the country pursuing these investigations.

“One that is nearing completion here, I know there are two [sheriff’s] detectives who worked 12-hour days, six days a week for two-and-half months,” Monsrud said.

In that case, a 27-year-old Fridley man, Napoleon Long Jr., was indicted this month of a federal charge of enticing and coercing a woman to travel to Colorado for prostitution.

The Anoka County attorney’s office has two or three trafficking cases referred to them each year. They often involve multiple defendants and multiple victims.

“They’re unique cases to work. It takes a particular set of skills to communicate well with the victims and get them to trust. It doesn’t come easy and without specialized training,” said prosecutor Paul Young, the Anoka County attorney’s division chief for violent crime. “Training will improve the quality of cases that get referred for prosecution.”