Two different police departments made contact with sex trafficking victims and a suspect at two different times last July 7, and both times officers failed to identify the crime at hand. In the first encounter, Inver Grove Heights police cited the suspect with a traffic violation. In the second, St. Paul police responded to a home and left when they were told “simply a fight had occurred.”

It wasn’t until three months later that a concerned grandmother’s e-mail prompted police to more closely investigate the suspect, Otis D. Washington, his brother, the men’s two uncles and one of the suspect’s former girlfriends. Earlier this month, the five of them were charged in Ramsey County District Court with allegedly running a sex trafficking ring that spanned St. Paul to Ely and victimized at least 10 vulnerable girls and women, including the ones police encountered at 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. on July 7.

On Monday, St. Paul police and the Ramsey County attorney’s office identified those two missed opportunities as gaps in the fight against sex trafficking, and together they vowed to change that with grants they received from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

“I think it demonstrates the need to train our officers to be aware of the sex trafficking that could be going on right in front of them,” said St. Paul Sgt. Ray Gainey.

Police and County Attorney John Choi’s office discussed details of their internal audits and long-range remedies Monday at a quarterly meeting of the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force. They hope to create an improved investigatory and prosecutorial “tool kit” in Ramsey County by early 2014 that could then be rolled out as a statewide model for investigating sex trafficking.

The effort began last spring by combing through police and county attorney records for possible sex trafficking cases and victims. Authorities identified 230 cases involving 170 girls going back as far as 2005, said Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Dave Pinto. The information is being loaded into a database for statistical analysis. Pinto said he believes it’s the first and largest database of its kind. Authorities hope the information it eventually yields will provide better insight into preventing sex trafficking.

Police also met with some of the victims identified in their research, and said they hope to improve police outreach to victims, including runaways. Some gaps police found include: Officers may not know the right questions to ask to identify trafficking victims they encounter on other calls; traffickers are often investigated case-by-case instead of overall for the totality of their crimes, and civilians who suspect trafficking may not know how to report it.

Police also found that in some questionnaires given to runaways who are tracked down, answers that could prove useful in sex trafficking investigations were not followed up on because they were lost in the original runaway report. The best practice for those answers should be to create a new police report, Gainey said.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” Gainey said of the effort to train the department’s 610 officers to better identify sex trafficking victims and to generate new case numbers for other crimes.

But Pinto, Gainey, Choi and St. Paul Sgt. John Bandemer, head of the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force, said they’re committed to seeing these changes take root in Ramsey County and across Minnesota through a collaboration with advocates who often first encounter and work with trafficking victims.

“I really believe that this is the greatest human rights atrocity that’s happening before our eyes,” Choi told a few dozen law enforcement, advocates and community members at the meeting. “The reality is our work is never really done. There really is no finish line.”

The work by police and Choi’s office is being funded by grants provided last year and this year from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. Gainey and Pinto said authorities are still working to improve their offices’ protocol on sex trafficking cases, so details on what else would change were not immediately available.

Trudee Able-Peterson, a trafficking survivor turned activist, said she was excited by the efforts outlined Monday. She also called on authorities to work closely with advocates.

“The training of officers is just a crucial piece,” said Able-Peterson, senior outreach specialist at StreetWorks Collaborative. “Change within police would help with the cultural shift” in ensuring these young girls are viewed as victims instead of criminals.


Twitter: @ChaoStrib