Going after human traffickers takes substantial law enforcement resources, which makes it difficult for suburban police departments to commit to such intensive initiatives.
But as part of its “blueprint for success” planning agenda for 2016, Eden Prairie police finished a yearlong, three-pronged approach that netted the arrests of 27 pimps and johns. The effort also included victim outreach and recovery, and public education through speaking at civic, professional and religious organizations.
Eden Prairie is part of a growing and committed group of suburban departments to develop a proactive trafficking program that focuses on the buyers, said Minneapolis Police Sgt. Grant Snyder, who has spent the majority of his career tackling the issue and helped Eden Prairie with its program.
A statewide trafficking conference in 2014 opened Eden Prairie detective Carter Staaf’s eyes to the problem in Minnesota. Then his department examined what Minneapolis, St. Paul and several suburban departments were doing to combat the problem, he said.
“We started looking more closely at things like domestic assaults at hotels,” he said. “Maybe the relationship wasn’t just a boyfriend/girlfriend thing.”
It didn’t take long before Staaf and other officers were seeing some of the trends that were discussed at the conference and through training sessions. One of the first victims they encountered was a 16-year-old girl at a city bus terminal. She was a habitual runaway who told her friends she was going to Arizona.
But Eden Prairie police sensed something was off about her story, and they had an officer stop the bus, said Staaf. They learned her pimp was in Arizona, and that he sexually and mentally abused his victims, shaving part of their head to stamp a bar code on it.
If possible, police brought along a social worker or victim services advocate, he said. That included providing support through Safe Harbor, a statewide program offering shelter and training for victimized juveniles.
During the year, Eden Prairie set up four trafficking stings focusing on the demand side of the crime, said Staaf. He said that “the typical customer looks like me, a 46-year-old man who is married.” They come from neighboring cities or are in town from another country on a business trip, he said.
One victim was a 20-year-old woman who had been trafficked for about a month. She worked all week, sometimes having as many as five johns in a day.
“It’s just a horrible industry,” said Staaf. “The victims could have an addiction or be somebody in college with a mounting debt or family trouble.”
Eden Prairie residents have also taken a role in making the victims feel safe. A group of knitters has been making hats, scarves and blankets that are offered to the victims.
“It can make them feel that they are not alone,” he said. “Sometimes a simple gift brings them to tears.”
While the learning curve has been steep, Staaf said he has built relationships with advocates, local businesses and officers from other departments. He now will get telephone calls from hotels if they believe a guest may be a victim of trafficking.
Staaf has been in law enforcement for 20 years and was getting near retirement. But he views it as the most important mission in his career, he said.
“It’s almost like a calling,” he said. “We want to make changes and help lead the fight in Minnesota.