Elected officials, law enforcement and other stakeholders in Pasco County have teamed up this month to shed light on the growing issue of human trafficking.
The problem was at the forefront of a Jan. 5 press conference that featured Pasco County District 1 commissioner Ron Oakley, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, State Rep. Danny Burgess, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco and others.
“We’re not afraid to say there’s a problem,” Nocco said. “There’s a problem here in Pasco, there’s a problem here in Tampa Bay, there’s a problem in the state of Florida, there’s a problem nationally, and there’s a problem globally.”
Nocco said it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of victims in the county. Many human trafficking cases go unreported, he said.
That’s why the sheriff is urging people to be on the lookout—and report—any suspicious activity.
He noted major events — such as the NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 28 in Tampa— oftentimes leads to an uptick in prostitution, due to the number of travelers coming into town.
“If there’s a house in your community, and you see a lot of people coming in and out, see a lot of young girls and even young boys, call law enforcement,” he said.
“If you’re in a restaurant and see something that doesn’t look right, call law enforcement.”
Nocco explained sex trafficking doesn’t just lurk in low-income areas, motels or adult establishments.
“Everybody thinks it’s always going to be a seedy part of town; it could be a very high-class area, a high-class neighborhood, where they’re smuggling young girls or young boys,” Nocco explained. “This is not a crime that’s about stereotypes. It’s every race, color, creed, gender, ethnicity and sexual preference. Everybody can be a victim of this.”
He noted that preventing more victims starts “at home” with parents informing their children about human trafficking, and the dangers it presents.
“If you create an environment where the kids are loved,” Nocco said, “basically you’re reducing the factors that will allow them to be victims of human trafficking. “You also have to be a parent to other kids in your neighborhood, because there’s going to be parents…that don’t care.”
Elected officials, meanwhile, are working to tackle the trafficking problem at large.
The House of Representatives has introduced legislation holding websites accountable for soliciting human trafficking, called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017. Bilirakis said he expects it to pass sometime this month. The House also passed a Homeland Security funding bill that appropriates $2.1 billion—an increase of nearly $94 million — for domestic and international investigations programs, including efforts to combat human trafficking and child exploitation.
Elsewhere, the U.S. Senate introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, a bill that would help shut down websites that knowingly provide a platform for sex trafficking. The bill has been reported out of committee and is awaiting passage.
“It’s a nonpartisan issue,” Bilirakis said, “and all stakeholders must work together to solve the problem.”
The month of January has been declared National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, by a presidential proclamation. And, Jan. 11 is the U. S. Department of Homeland Security’s “Wear Blue Day,” a day to pledge solidarity with victims of human trafficking and raise awareness about, and work to end related crimes.
Called Blue Campaign, it is the unified voice for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to combat human trafficking.
Locally, one group is trying to do its part to find solutions.
The Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking, formed in 2014, is chaired by by Liana Dean, a social worker at BayCare Behavioral Health.
The group is made up of 11 stakeholders representing different sectors of the community. The stakeholders include county government, law enforcement, behavioral health, business and service providers, the school district, faith-based community and others.
It promotes public awareness about human trafficking, creates educational programming opportunities and advocates for strategies to aid survivors of human trafficking.
Since its formation, the commission has taken several active steps to curb human trafficking on a regional level.
It worked with the Pasco County Commission in 2016 to pass an ordinance that mandates signage to raise awareness of human trafficking be posted in the restrooms and dressing rooms of sexually oriented businesses, such as adult entertainment establishments and unlicensed massage services.
It also worked with the National Human Trafficking Hotline and WTOG-TV/CW44 to produce three public service announcements designed to educate the public about the local presence of trafficking.
The commission also has trained more than 3,000 members of the community on human trafficking through its community awareness presentations.
Jennie Sammur, who was recognized as the group’s Volunteer of the Year, helps with social media and public relations strategies.
Sammur, a Tampa-based real estate agent, said awareness is “very key in correcting this horrific crime in our community.”
Florida has consistently ranked third in the number of cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, behind only California and Texas.
Published January 10, 2018