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Katherine Grandstrand, Forum News Service, Published January 25 2014

Police training seen as key step in combating human trafficking

DICKINSON, N.D. – Some crimes just follow money. Whether it’s a group of guys flying into New Jersey for the Super Bowl or lonely men on the prairie with money to burn in their pockets, drug dealers and human traffickers know there is a market for their product.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, announced last week legislation that would mirror a Minnesota law creating a “safe haven” for underage victims of sex trafficking, rather than charging them with a crime. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has co-sponsored the bill, dubbed the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act.

“Minnesota passed a really strong human trafficking, sex trafficking law that really makes it clear that, for the victim – mostly girls, but some boys under age 18 – that they are to get help, they are not to be prosecuted,” Klobuchar said. “That way, one, you can have a better chance of turning their lives around. But you are also able to get them to testify against the real perpetrators here, which are the pimps and the people running the sex trafficking ring.”

The bill wouldn’t change much on the local level, Dickinson Police Detective Terry Oestreich said. While most of the prostitution cases in Dickinson are women working of their own free will, police are learning to determine the difference.

“That’s just good investigations,” Oestreich said. “Through proper and thorough interviews you can – it’s not too hard to determine that if you do a good, thorough investigation with good, thorough proper interviews.”

While the decision to prosecute is left to the state’s attorney, investigators work closely with prosecutors in cases like these, Oestreich said.

The Dickinson Police Department has been participating in training to help recognize these activities, Oestreich said.

Training at the local level is the first step to stopping this activity, Heitkamp said.

“I’ve talked now with a number of chiefs of police and sheriffs who have said they’re trying now to have their officers think about this issue when they make a traffic stop,” Heitkamp said. “Think about this issue when you see a situation that you think, ‘That’s not right, she doesn’t look old enough. She doesn’t look like his daughter. What’s she doing with this man at this time of the night?’

She added: “And so, we’re trying to get everybody trained in law enforcement and everybody aware of the problem, and I think we’ve got great, absolutely great, help from law enforcement.”

Prostitution is an expensive crime to investigate, Oestreich said. In North Dakota, it’s a Class B misdemeanor to purchase or sell sex acts, and carries a maximum sentence of 30 days imprisonment, a $1,000 fine or both.

“It ties up a lot of manpower for misdemeanor crimes,” Oestreich said. “However, it does tie into human trafficking at times, and people being forced to do things against their will.”

In North Dakota, human trafficking of an adult – for sex or labor purposes – is a Class A felony. Human trafficking of a minor is a Class AA felony. The Class A felony carries a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment, a $20,000 fine or both. A person convicted of a Class AA felony faces life in prison without parole.

Human trafficking doesn’t happen only on foreign soil or to foreign girls.

“I think that it could happen to anyone,” Klobuchar said. “Kids run away sometimes and, in this day and age with the Internet, anything can happen to them. We really need to stop treating this like it’s something that’s half a world away because it’s going on in our own backyard.”

The victims are not always forced to perform sex acts, Heitkamp said.

“Whether these folks are indebted and working in places not getting paid, or their enslaver is actually getting their paycheck,” Heitkamp said. “We just need to pay attention beyond the issue of trafficking for sex purposes but also looking at forced labor.”

The online ads increase around the Super Bowl – 2011 saw a 300 percent spike at that time – Klobuchar said. Cindy McCain, wife of Republican Sen. John McCain, is getting on board in support of the bill because her home state, Arizona, will host the Super Bowl in 2015.

However, it isn’t a seasonal problem.

“We would be foolish if we said it’s not happening in North Dakota,” Heitkamp said. “All of the conditions – unattached young men, lots of money, a huge cash economy and a growing presence of other kinds of criminal elements like cartels and drugs – would tell us that they aren’t just going to restrict their illegal activity to drugs.”

The use of e-commerce to sell everything, even humans, has created an added challenge to this issue, Klobuchar said.

“Because of the Internet, we’ve really had a sudden increase in the number of these kinds of cases,” she said. “It’s been surprising how many – you see the numbers worldwide – but just in Minnesota we’ve had four major convictions in one county alone, Ramsey County.”