Suffolk County tackles human trafficking
SUFFOLK COUNTY—Suffolk County officials announced on Monday, July 30, that the Suffolk County Police Department has launched a Human Trafficking Investigation Unit, the first of its kind on Long Island.
The new unit, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was born out of efforts to crack down on sex trafficking within Suffolk County. The initiative utilizes a team of detectives and police officers tasked with investigating those that engage in sex trafficking and related criminal activities, according to officials.
Those present during the press conference outlined law enforcement’s new approach to combating prostitution—an approach that appears to be rethinking the way sex workers are traditionally prosecuted in our criminal justice system.
The Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk executive director Lauren Hubert called for more “compassion” and less judgment in regards to victims of sex trafficking. Hubert’s organization, founded in 1976, looks to provide services and education to survivors of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault.
Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island co-founder/executive director Jennifer Hernandez was also present to celebrate the initiative. Her nonprofit agency was founded in 2015 as a response to what they felt was a lack of trauma-informed services in Suffolk County.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said prostitution often involves criminals that coerce the most vulnerable in our society into human trafficking through various means, such as the exploitation of drug use and intimidation.
Bellone called human trafficking an “emerging issue” in Suffolk, despite record-low crime rates within the county. Bellone added that many residents are surprised to hear the issue is so prevalent on Long Island, as they often assume it is confined to foreign countries.
Most of the victims are young girls (mid-teens, early 20s), according to officials. It also isn’t uncommon for victims to be advertised on the internet.
The phrase “human trafficking” can be misleading, according to district attorney Tim Sini, as it often conjures up images of random abductions and elaborate criminal organizations like those depicted in action blockbusters. Sini explained that most human trafficking cases are developed through individuals that have long-standing relationships with their victims.
Sini said there is a strong correlation between the spike in human trafficking cases and the opioid epidemic. The DA added that when sex workers are treated as victims rather than criminals, they are inclined to cooperate with authorities in going after those that truly profit from these illegal activities.
In the decade before the new unit’s formation, five people were indicted on sex trafficking charges, Sini explained. But since May 2017, nine people have been charged with 75 sex-trafficking counts, along with another 90 counts on charges that include assault, drug dealing, menacing and stalking.
Nevertheless, Sini insisted that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” resembling previous comments he and his administration have made about the opioid epidemic in the past.
Michael Osbourn, FBI assistant special agent-in-charge, confirmed the FBI’s involvement in the new unit.
Suffolk County Commissioner Geraldine Hart said, in lieu of jail time, victims of human trafficking are offered drug treatment and mental health services through the recent initiative. Hart added that 37 people have successfully completed treatment through the pilot program, which ultimately helped to get low-level charges dropped.
It was also explained that this policy would continue to apply to individuals that qualify through investigations that look into the nature of the arrest, as well as previous arrests. Many individuals arrested on low-level charges are first-time offenders, according to officials.
Hart says community outreach is also a big part of the initiative. The new unit has been monitoring social media for solicitation and reaching out to private-sector industries, such as motels and transportation services that often inadvertently cross paths with sex trafficking.
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