From the streets to social media, how law enforcement is targeting sex traffickers

Nearly 100 people from Illinois have called the National Human Trafficking Hotline looking for help. Nationally, 3,700 have reached out. They all said they were being sex trafficked. As counselors try to give them aid, law enforcement works tirelessly to track down offenders. Local law enforcement is attempting to help survivors thrive and targeting abusers who enslave and then sell boys and girls for sex.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, as a steady flow of cars and trucks rolled along a four-lane stretch in unincorporated Cook County, a woman paced back and forth along a busy road.

A man was taken into custody for soliciting commercial sex.

“I thought she was pretty,” he said. “And there was a lull in the traffic. I thought, well maybe she needs a lift or whatever, or I’ve heard stuff. Let’s find out what her story is, and her story was this, so.”

The story was a sting operation the Cook County Sheriff’s Department runs regularly to diminish the demand for commercial sex.

“Any customer is providing money that may end up back in the hands of a trafficker,” Commander William Leen of the Cook County Sheriff’s Dept. said.

A Cook County Sheriff’s Police Officer explained, “So right here in this car, right here we’ve got two girls. One girl will take their turn to go outside, and then our eyeball is down over there, see her right there? Alright, everybody on the radio? Alright, we’re ready, go ahead, go out. So, one of the girls is going out now.”

While the “UC,” or undercover, walked the street, other members of the vice squad kept an eye on her.

“They’ll let us know what kind of car pulled up, where they parked and when she’s talking to them,” the officer said.

With another female undercover taking a turn, it wasn’t long before someone pulled over.

“Our undercover will give the sign, and when she gives the sign she’ll tell me it’s a-go,” the officer said. “They’ll make a deal with our undercover, and we’ll take them into custody.”

During the three-hour stake out there were two take downs, each a deal for oral sex at the price of $20. The first offender was handcuffed, brought to the station and issued an ordinance violation ticket that carries a $1,000 fine – plus another $700 in towing fees.

He then agreed to speak with WGN.

“I was going home from work and saw an attractive lady and made eye contact and was kind of curious,” he said. “So I pulled over, found out she was working and said, ‘Oh what the hell.’ Just a lady out there who needs the cash or wants to have a good time or combination of both. She didn’t seem like she was a drug addict or whatever. Seemed normal enough.”

When asked if he had thought about whether the female may have been under the control of a trafficker, he said, “That’s definitely something that didn’t even cross my mind today.”

It may not cross your mind that trafficking happens everywhere. Think your neighborhood is immune? A North Shore citizens group asked Cook County Sherriff Tom Dart to educate them on sex trafficking. He opened his presentation with a video that showed locations of his most recent operations, locations close to home for everybody in the room.

“You could hear a pin drop,” Dart said. “Yeah, the cases I am going to talk to you about tonight are ones that occurred in this neighborhood, in this region. And they are all like, ‘That’s where we live.’ I know. This is everywhere. … 90-95 percent of the operations that we break up are local people trafficking local people.”

And finding them stretches from the streets to social media, where Dart uses dummy ads to snag customers searching for commercial sex. After a few text exchanges, there’s a surprise pop up from law enforcement.

“I never had any delusions we were going to end all this horror,” Dart said. “But it was putting a thoughtful type of strategy together that both went after the bad guys and treated the women in a completely different way with a whole different strategy of trying to get them out of this and into a different lifestyle.”

In Chicago, sheriff’s police officers do not arrest women on the street.

“We just don’t do that and haven’t done it for years,” Dart said.

Instead, they focus on prosecuting the criminals controlling the vulnerable  while trafficking victims are offered help and access to resources.

“Providing a really robust opportunity for someone who has been exploited to enjoy healthy choices, to enjoy for the first time ever having a bed to sleep in, maybe for the first time have an opportunity to complete schooling of some sort or complete a parenting class,” Marian Hatcher of the Cook County Sheriff’s Dept. said.

“Every single study has shown, they all had histories of sexual abuse in their lives, drug abuse, mental health issues, all that sort of wrapped in there,” Dart said. “That woman was, at some point, someone’s little daughter that held them in their hands. They had all these wild dreams for what they were going to be. And now she’s doing this. And you’re going tell me that’s a voluntary act and that’s what she chose? It was either, ‘I’m going to be an accountant or I'm going to be in a hotel room waiting for a complete stranger to do God only knows what to me.’ I think we collectively think we are much further along as a society, and we’re not.”

“I mean it’s very, very sad,” the officer at the stakeout said. “I have a daughter. I see it and, oh my God, what if this is your daughter? It’s just horrible.”

In the last year, Cook County Sheriff’s police officers arrested 12 sex traffickers in the Chicagoland area. It is a constant battle but knowing there is a problem makes it less likely people can ignore victims, abusers and those who seemingly enjoy the physical pleasure of a young slave's pain. Sex trafficking is growing. Those on the front lines say only together can we get help for survivor's and transform the future.

Resources for sex trafficking survivors available here.

Selah Freedom: www.selahfreedom.com
Human trafficking hotline: 888.373.7888

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