As we previewed last week, Jacksonville City Councilman Tommy Hazouri is looking to implement the next phase of the city’s response to human trafficking.
In 2016, the city began a response, with awareness signs posted in strip clubs and massage parlors. However, Hazouri believes more can be done — and on Monday, the veteran pol met with representatives from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the 4th Circuit State Attorney’s Office to iron out specifics related to coordination of response.
Councilman Hazouri referred to human trafficking as one of the most severe human rights challenges of the century, adding that Florida has the third-most human trafficking in the country, and Jacksonville is number three in the state in incident rates.
State Attorney Melissa Nelson‘s office took an initial focus on the problem when she came into office in January, via hiring a special prosecutor to focus on the issue.
Mac Heavener, Nelson’s assistant state attorney, has worked on the issue on the federal level since 2008 as a U.S. attorney. The SAO’s newly-instituted human rights division hones in on the issue also.
Heavener noted that the SAO works with the sheriff’s office on the local level, and the FBI in cases that transcend local jurisdiction.
Heavener noted that juveniles are “generally trafficked for commercial sex acts,” and there is prima facie proof in those cases.
In terms of adult trafficking, labor trafficking and domestic sex trafficking are among the sectors where the crisis is most acute. Labor trafficking is difficult to track, Heavener said.
Sheriff Mike Williams noted the importance of “awareness” in combating the epidemic.
“Applying what we know to human trafficking … having a dedicated group of investigators … are incredibly important,” Williams said.
“I still don’t believe I can tell you how much human trafficking we have in Jacksonville, but we continue to dig,” said Williams.
One issue victims deal with after emerging from these situations: housing, allowing them shelter while they redevelop a support network.
“Housing is a huge deficit in our community,” said a representative from the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center.
Council VP John Crescimbeni noted that Jacksonville’s victim services center was lauded for “clicking on all cylinders” years ago, but has been hampered by budget cuts.
Crescimbeni would like to see that center restored to its former glory, as a central clearinghouse allowing for coordination of efforts.
Over the next few months, Crescimbeni hopes that stakeholders will convene to give ideas to council, with the idea that the center become a more “efficient machine” in time for the next city budget to go into effect in October.
Clearly, transitional housing and support will have to be a part of any response beyond the symbolic.
Councilman Aaron Bowman, who once commanded Mayport, noted that the issue was especially prevalent in port towns during his time in the service.
Indeed, traffic is related to travel — and victims can be anywhere.
In 2016, of 44 victims rescued on the city level, 10 were juveniles.
The deep web, said Williams, serves as a clearinghouse for this “industry without borders,” which does not discriminate in terms of race or national origin in terms of its victims.
Sometimes, victims are uncovered during prostitution sweeps — a process made more difficult because they won’t initially identify themselves as victims.
Over time and through investigative diligence, the story comes out, fragment by fragment, with patterns being identified that allow the kingpins to be brought down over time.
The records of victims eventually are expunged via pro bono attorneys, allowing them to reintegrate into normal society.
Regarding labor trafficking, victims tend to be harvested from certain ethnic immigrant groups, often those who learned to distrust authorities in their native countries.
Language barriers are issues, as is the nature of where they work: restaurants, nail salons, and other tight-knit shops that don’t permit undercover infiltration.
“You have a reluctance to even talk to the police,” Heavener said, “especially if you’re here illegally.”
In Jacksonville, landscaping tends to see a lot of Hispanic and Asian people “working in the shadows,” with one federal law enforcement officer on hand noting the difficulty of getting actionable information from these laborers.
Domestic help trafficking, Heavener said, is also an issue, with nannies and the like imported.
In those cases, a concerned citizen may be the only lead for law enforcement.
Kristin Keen of the Rethreaded group, which works with sexual assault survivors, noted that legislation has to address demand.
“People think it’s a woman’s issue,” Keen said, but “what is driving it is profit. You decrease the demand, you decrease supply.”
Keen suggested a legislative remedy, such as in Seattle, which addressed the demand via law enforcement and private sector involvement, catalyzing a “cultural shift.”
Others on hand noted that changes to the culture’s approach to prostitution, asking men to ally against prostitution and to change language related to women and girls, can help to mitigate this problem.
Awareness is key, said Sheriff Williams, whether the trafficking is illegal sex or labor.
“Some people don’t realize what they’re involved in. Others do,” Williams said, “but they don’t know who to talk to.”