People engaged in prostituting children often boast about doing so, even online. Now a new major crimes prosecutor at the Washington County attorney’s office is pledging to put an end to that braggadocio.
“The word ‘pimp’ carries almost a badge of honor to those individuals who claim to be a pimp,” said Imran Ali, who considers sex trafficking his biggest priority. “I’m trying to get that word ‘pimp’ out of the vocabulary because I don’t want to empower them. They’re a trafficker, they’re a manipulator, they’re a criminal.”
Ali has prosecuted homicides in Washington County for several years, and he was a public defender in Hennepin County before that. Now he’s beginning work on a long list of major crimes to fulfill County Attorney Pete Orput’s goal of cracking persistent and troubling trends in lawbreaking.
Topping the list is sex trafficking. The county attorney’s office initiative involves collaboration with the sheriff’s office, police departments and criminal analyst Brooke Throngard, who reviews thousands of pages of data and looks for trends in online postings.
Sex trafficking has accelerated in recent years, Ali said. Hookups with paying customers can be arranged in minutes through electronic devices and social media, rather than the old days when men cruised certain streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul to find women and girls, he said.
The county attorney’s office recently charged several people with sex trafficking, and Ali promises more as he and Throngard compile data that identify patterns in how children are bought and sold for sex.
Traffickers, Ali said, feel no shame.
“They prey on people who are the most vulnerable, the young; we’ve seen developmentally disabled victims,” he said. “They manipulate, this is what they do. They manipulate the thoughts, the emotions, the feelings.”
Ali said it’s not the role of the county attorney’s office to investigate cases — that’s what police do best, he said — but he will work with law enforcement officials to find evidence he needs to make his case.
Ali and Throngard also are creating a special dispatch team that will respond to situations where police detect possible child sex trafficking.
“Not everybody is trained … knows the different resources for that victim, particularly with the juveniles that we’re seeing,” he said.
Beginning Feb. 1, the dispatch team — trained law enforcement officers from various jurisdictions — will go to crime scenes to find evidence of sex traffickers and provide resources immediately to the victim.
Throngard, meanwhile, has been digging into Web-based databases in search of information that will help her identify sex-trafficking trends.
“If I do come across something that seems suspicious, we do contact law enforcement and give them the data we think may lead to something,” she said.
Recently, Ali said, a police investigation turned up 154,000 pages of cellphone records that will be used in a sex trafficking prosecution. Throngard will search that data for incriminating evidence to help Ali when he takes the case to court.
“As a result of doing that, Brooke unfortunately is tasked with looking at copious amounts of child pornography, the worst of the worst images you could imagine,” Ali said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done on the forensic side.”
Within a year, Ali said, the sex trafficking initiative will become more visible with more prosecutions, education and training in schools, and more awareness at places where sex trafficking commonly happens, such as motels and hotels.
“We think we’ll have a good grasp of the problem we’re dealing with here in Minnesota, and what those trends are,” he said.
The work of a major crimes prosecutor isn’t limited to sex trafficking. Ali’s to-do list includes career criminals, serial retail theft, significant organized crime, major economic offenses, large-scale organized drug distribution, gang crimes and cold cases.
“When we have an individual that steals $1,000 from a store, that’s a crime, it’s a felony,” he said. “But when we have a 17-year-old, a 15-year-old, being trafficked, that is a priority. So that’s our message — we’re going to be focusing on juvenile sex trafficking for the time being. That’s where all of our resources, all of our time, are going.”