“We are doing the best we can with the resources we have,” Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt said. “It is a constant, new learning curve.”
Felt said the increased attention came after officers took part in training funded by a grant written by the Kandiyohi County Attorney’s Office. The training gave officers more information on human trafficking and what to look for when patrolling the streets. This education has helped them immensely when investigating possible prostitution or human trafficking situations.
“Staff is much better at recognizing it,” the chief said.
The cases can be hard to pin down, complicated by the fact that those wanting to purchase sex primarily use the internet.
“We are always trying to play catch up,” Felt said.
Today’s human trafficking and prostitution is rarely like the movies, in which wisecracking, independent streetwalkers are picking up customers of their choosing on the side of the road, or victims are being dramatically kidnapped and whisked away by strangers.
“Taken and Pretty Woman caused a lot of misconceptions,” said Stephanie Felt, Kandiyohi County Human Trafficking Task Force coordinator, of popular movies.
Instead, most of the human trafficking and prostitution happen online, on websites like the now defunct Backpage or on the dark web. Only the final transaction is completed in person.
Victims, especially runaway teenage girls, are usually approached by pimps and groomed by them, Stephanie Felt said. A runaway may be approached by a pimp within 36 to 48 hours after running away.
“They look for vulnerability,” Stephanie Felt said.
To find the pimps or buyers, law enforcement officers have to do a lot of research, communicate undercover with the suspects and then execute the arrest. When time allows, the Willmar Police Department Gang Task Force has done similar investigations in a variety of locations. Sometimes people will travel hours to buy sex, other times they live only a few blocks away from where they are arrested.
The ages, race and socioeconomic status of the suspects also vary greatly. In the last string of cases, the youngest suspect was 22 while the oldest was in his 70s, the task force’s statistics said. And it’s not always men wanting to buy sex, sometimes they are women.
If a person is convicted of trying to purchase sex from an adult, the charge is usually a misdemeanor or a gross misdemeanor. If the victim is a minor, the charge is a felony with more severe consequences.
When it comes to the individual providing the sex, law enforcement now looks at them more as victims than criminals. Safe Harbor laws say anyone selling sex who is under the age of 21 is not charged and instead is viewed as a victim or survivor. For those who are adults, it depends on the circumstances, but they too can be considered victims and not charged for prostitution.
“They are trying to look at all ages being victims in this,” Stephanie Felt said.
These victims then need a lot of help once a law enforcement sting and arrests are made. They need counseling, medical help and assistance in building a new life. Rarely have the people working as prostitutes decided to sell themselves on their own. Prostitution is not a victimless crime.
“There is almost always someone forcing that person to do that,” Stephanie Felt said.
Law enforcement and victim advocates are also trying to educate the public about what to look out for when it comes to human trafficking. Chief Felt said hotels and motels of certain sizes have to go through training about human trafficking, to help with uncovering the illegal activity. Even individual members of the public can help, by passing along tips or sharing concerns with law enforcement.
“Sometimes that tiny little puzzle piece can make all the difference,” he said.
Since June, the number of sex crime cases the Police Department has been able to investigate has dropped due to staffing levels. It remains a priority for officers, however.
“We do feel it is an issue in the community,” the chief said.
And as long as it remains an issue, the Police Department and its partners, including the human trafficking task force, will continue to work toward ending human trafficking. It will be a lot of work and may seem impossible, but it is worth it.
“Even helping one person get out of the circle of trauma makes it worth it,” Stephanie Felt said.