Law enforcement agencies in the Philadelphia area are ramping up efforts to crack down on human trafficking.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 116 cases of men, women and children being exploited were reported in Pennsylvania and 143 were logged in New Jersey last year as of last September.
But Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said Wednesday it’s not clear just how widespread the problem is in the region.
“I will be candid with you that in local law enforcement, this is something that has flown beneath the radar, and that is the issue,” said Ross.
Now, city police are now part of a new task force announced Wednesday that is aiming to take a more proactive approach. The group includes the F.B.I., U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.
Jim Carpenter, head of the district attorney’s family violence and sexual assault unit, said authorities tend to stumble upon human trafficking cases by accident while investigating other crimes. And too often, victims, including undocumented immigrants and women forced into prostitution, are afraid to come forward out of fear that they are the ones who have broken the law.
“If I’m a woman who is being forced to engage in sex with other men and being beaten and having a gun pointed at me on a regular basis … am I going to go to the police? Well no,” Carpenter said. “I’m going to get arrested and then, I’m going to get beaten by my pimp.”
Now, members of the task force say they are working together to coordinate investigations and to build cases against a growing database of known traffickers.
“The goal of this is to detect it, to find it, to ask the community to speak up, to ask social welfare agencies to detect it and for us to coordinate our investigations to go after these guys because they just continue to do it and we know it’s out there and we’re tired of just stumbling on it,” Carpenter said.
The task force also includes nonprofits such as the Salvation Army, which has been helping human trafficking victims in the region for years.
“We’ve been out on the streets, we’ve been working for some time now,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Banfield who leads the Salvation Army’s eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware division. “But we see that it is a larger problem than just what the Salvation Army can handle, and there’s more ramifications to this than just our bringing them into a safe place and getting them to feel warm, clean, etc.”
Task force members said getting victims to trust law enforcement will be a key part of putting more traffickers behind bars.