One of the growing problems in our world today is sex trafficking. I have to confess that I did not think sex trafficking was occurring in my community, until I asked Jessica Bartholomew, a member of our church to share about the problem. She stated that within a five to ten minute drive from our church in Chaska, there were houses that were used for sex trafficking. Jessica, spent ten years on the Minneapolis Police Force and from her experiences there, she has established a ministry in our church called ‘ACT United,’ to educate people about sex trafficking and how we can help stop it from happening in our communities. I asked her to write the following article to help people realize and understand what is involved in this issue.
During my law enforcement career I spent about 5 years in an undercover vice unit doing stings and operations to address violent crime in the urban city I worked for. My work focused on narcotics, guns, and street robberies that were on a statistical high at the time. Our city, population 400,070, had 1 vice unit for each of its 5 precincts as well as 3 city wide vice units for Narcotics, Gangs, and Street Crimes that often worked with our Federal partners.
As a police officer you get very familiar with what your city looks like, who lives where, and what looks “normal” for your area of patrol. You also get very good at spotting and reading behaviors that indicate current or preparation for criminal activity, someone who needs help, medical conditions, or someone who is lost and could use some directions. There are other people and professions, outside of law enforcement, that also have this ability, to notice and discern behavior. As a police officer, with our observation of certain behaviors, we have a responsibility to act for the protection of people, the community, and to serve those in need. I have to confess I had an advantage starting my career, because I grew up in the same urban area I now worked as a cop. I started the job knowing the neighborhoods, a lot of the people, and both the strengths of a community as well as the crime trends and criminal hotspots. I had a pretty good eye for what was “normal” activity in these neighborhoods. However, it doesn’t take long for anyone to figure all this out when patrolling and spending time on the street.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT
Driving through my hometown streets, on duty one night, something caught my attention. It was a week night, about midnight, in a residential area, with not a soul on the street except for these three individuals. A girl who looked about 13 years old walking with a purse and cell phone and two adult males, in their 30’s, walking together, behind her, at a distance that struck me as close enough to not lose sight, but far enough to not look like they were with her. I was working with a partner and we stopped our car to watch for a moment. When they got to the next intersection, with four different directions to go, the girl turned left to go west, and the males followed right behind her. It didn’t take much intuition to notice that at the very least this girl was in violation of the city curfew, but making contact with her for that purpose, would prove or disprove my hunch that this girl was in a much deeper situation.
We approached and made contact with her. The two adults took a sudden turn and started walking away. She said she did not know the males who were following her which may or may not have been true. She was definitely not interested in a conversation with the police, but agreeable enough to sit in the car with us and talk about violating curfew and to find out who she was and how to get her home.
She told us she was 14 years old and gave us a name that she spelled out for us. When nothing came back under her name in a couple different system checks, which would not be uncommon for a 14 year old who usually does not have a state ID or driver license yet, but my gut was saying that this was not her real name. I ran the name she gave me a couple more times, confirming the spelling, but nothing under that name was found. Then like perfect timing, as to solve the mystery for me, her cell phone rang. Looking down at her phone to see who it was, she quickly answered and said, “They got me…OK” and then hung up.
“They got me” ?? “OK” ?? Not quite a normal way to answer your phone. From these words, to whoever was on the other end of that line, I knew that there was someone, not a concerned parent or guardian, in charge of her whereabouts. Someone who never once asked to clarify, “Who are they?”, but knowing she was caught by “they”, only gave some sort of instruction to her, to which she responded, “OK”.
I now had a child on the street, late at night, under an unknown persons control or oversight, and I was unable to identify her. In an attempt to find out who she was, a phone number for a mom or dad, and to look into what kind of situation she might be in, I asked for her cell phone. When she handed me the phone, the first thing I saw was a photo of a naked adult male sent to her in a text message that said, “Where are you? Hurry up.” Apparently she had passed the phone too quickly without getting out of the text message she was about to send back to him. Or perhaps, God in His plan to rescue this girl made sure I saw the photo. If I did not see this photo, I would have had nothing to confirm my suspicion that I had more than a girl out past curfew.
Although this was not my introduction to knowing and understanding human sex trafficking, this would be my first criminal case as a Police Officer. It all started with a girl out on the street past curfew and a feeling in my cop gut that something deeper, more ominous was going on. The case would end one year later, with the arrest, prosecution, and prison time for a 24 year old male sex trafficker who had been selling her since she was 12 years old.
HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?
So, who is this girl? And how does this happen? It’s easier to believe that a market for child sex slaves only happens in some dark corners of the earth away from civil society, in places we will never go to, or ever see in our life time. It’s easier to believe that there are no victims, but individuals, who for greed and sexual desire, have chosen a career of sex for money, making business arrangements, that mutually satisfy the needs of the one selling and the one buying. It’s easier to believe that those who buy children are the Boogey man and would look horrifyingly obvious if they ever tried to live among us in normal society.
What’s not easy to understand is that a girl, who lives in suburban America, with her mom and little brother, attends public school, and plays at the park, is being sold on the weekends by a family member to a dozen different men per day in the Midwest Heartland of the United States. And that her story represents the situation for many children, both boys and girls, being sold right under our noses in America.
In the next edition of the Langstaff Letter we will present the second part of Jessica’s message. For more information on ACT United, a ministry established to educate people about sex trafficking and how we can help stop it from happening in our communities, you can visit their Facebook page or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.