November 4, 2013
Though it is often hard to uncover, police say human trafficking -- including sex trafficking -- is happening more and more in central Virginia.
"It's a silent crime. It's hidden from common observation, much more so than illegal narcotics trafficking," said Col. Steve Sellers with the Albemarle County Police Department.
Selling drugs is still the biggest money maker when it comes to organized crime, but human trafficking has risen to number two.
"I think organized crime is realizing just how profitable this business is," said Col. Sellers.
While drugs are typically sold then consumed, human trafficking offers services like sex or work, which have a longer lifespan.
"I can use that same commodity 12, 15, 20 times a day, and again 12, 15, 20 times a day again the next day, and the next day and the next day," said Col. Sellers.
Col. Sellers says human trafficking can involve many forms of extortion. Sex trafficking, which falls under the umbrella of human trafficking, can be tied to underage sex acts, child pornography and commonly prostitution, among others.
Both types are occurring in Albemarle County, according to Col. Sellers, and he says the victims are primarily foreign nationals.
He says human trafficking is one of the least understood crimes -- even for law enforcement -- and admits more training is needed to better distinguish it from other issues.
"We don't know what the warning signs are to look beyond the prostitution and realize oh my goodness, this person that we're treating as a suspect in a crime is in fact the victim of a crime," said Col. Sellers. "They have to be handled differently."
That takes educating the patrol force, a different approach to interviewing subjects and the involvement of victim counselors -- all things the department is taking steps to improve.
Timothy Heaphy from the U.S. Attorney's Office has established a human trafficking task force for this part of the state. It will give law enforcement an opportunity to tackle the crime with a multi-disciplinary, regional approach.
The first meeting is scheduled for November 8.
"These cases have large tentacles," said Col. Sellers. "If we have a human trafficking case here in Albemarle County, in all likelihood it's going to go throughout the state, and throughout the nation and, in some cases, throughout the world."
Targeting human trafficking is a challenge for officers because it can be a quick-moving underground business, but it is something Col. Sellers says needs to be a priority for the police department.
"I think it leads to a degradation of our community here, and if we don't get in front of it, it will lead to other problems in our community that will run out of control," he said.