To combat sex trafficking in the Twin Cities, Metro Transit officials are looking to train bus drivers to spot suspicious activity and implement a public awareness campaign.
Although it isn’t frequently seen or discussed, the Twin Cities has one of the largest concentrations of sex trafficking and prostitution in the country. Some experts say transit hubs, like bus stops, provide a common meeting place for those involved with sex trafficking.
University Police haven’t had any cases of sex trafficking, said Deputy Chief Chuck Miner, but it is still a prevalent issue in the Twin Cities.
The FBI classifies Minneapolis as one of 13 U.S. cities with a high concentration of child prostitution activity.
“We’re pretty high up there on the totem pole,” said Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, a Twin Cities organization that helps sex trafficking victims.
Lauren Martin, a University of Minnesota researcher who studies sex trafficking, said transit hubs can be a “less obvious” place for sex trafficking.
“People who are involved in sex trading and sex trafficking, they live everyday lives,” Martin said. “Recruiting happens on the bus, at bus stops, because it’s where people are.”
Although Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington said he hasn’t heard of any specific cases where sex trafficking has taken place on buses, he said police have received calls from people saying prostitution appeared to be happening near bus stops.
Harrington said bus drivers and transit officers will be trained to look for “classic signs” of prostitution, which includes underage girls who seem out of place, are dressed provocatively and are in the presence of an older male.
The awareness campaign will post signs in multiple languages near transit hubs telling sex trafficking victims how to get help.
Breaking Free, located in St. Paul, is one place victims can receive help. Carter said the group’s clients are frequently between 12 and 14 years old when they enter prostitution.
Metro Transit will work with advocacy and human trafficking groups to make sure signs are effective, Harrington said.
“It’s more than simply putting a sign up on the bus shelter,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re putting the right signage up there.”
New targeting online
Today’s online environment creates a new “marketing opportunity” for sex trafficking, Martin said.
In Minnesota, it’s estimated that 21 girls under age 18 are sexually exploited through Internet classifieds on any given night, according to a 2010 Schapiro Group study.
Although data show Minneapolis has a serious sex trafficking problem, the city is known for being proactive on the issue. Martin says Minneapolis is improving how it deals with sex trafficking, but this could actually be skewing the numbers.
“Part of the reason that it looks like numbers are high in the Twin Cities is because there is a lot of work being done on the issue,” Martin said. “We’re getting better at looking and prosecuting.”