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28 November 2017

Georgia Officials Continue Fight Against Human Trafficking Despite Challenges

The “Dateline NBC” special, “To Catch a Predator,” regularly brought the network high ratings during its initial run.

Many Americans tuned in each week to chuckle as host Chris Hansen and undercover police officers caught individuals seeking sex from minors. Behind the laughter, however, a disturbing secret exposed itself for the world to see.

Demand for sex with underage boys and girls exists. And unfortunately, some suppliers frequently exploit children to meet that need.

(Officials are posting notices like this one in public restrooms across the state, so that sex trafficking victims know they have a way out. Photo credit: Andre Walker)
In 2014, a study from the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute estimated the underground sex trade in Atlanta generated $290 million annually. The state could do without this commercial activity. In fact, public officials want to stop sex trafficking entirely.

“The Office of the Attorney General remains dedicated to eradicating human trafficking in Georgia,” said Attorney General Chris Carr.

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are continually battling to break the back of this seedy economy.

Just last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with 18 other departments including Savannah-Chatham Metro Police and the Richmond County Marshal’s Office, netted 60 arrests in Georgia as part of a national operation to combat underage human trafficking.

Numbers provided by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation indicate 170 people were arrested and charged with violating the state’s human trafficking law between 2016 and 2017.

Despite the cops’ best efforts to slow it down though, Georgia’s illegal sex industry continues growing.

“Prostitution is an industry that has been around for a very long time and will continue,” said Shiera Campbell with the DeKalb County Police Department. “DeKalb’s specialized units work diligently to curb prostitution and sex trafficking by preventing sites like Backpage and Craigslist from advertising on those sites and exploiting young men and women.”

“Backpage has removed its escort page, but those in the industry will move to other pages of the website to advertise,” Campbell said.

Tim Echols, one of Georgia’s five Public Service Commissioners, says he believes police don’t have enough resources at their disposal to effectively combat human trafficking.

“Our law enforcement has their hands-full with limited budgets," Echols said.

Although not part of his official duties, Commissioner Echols organizes a tour that spotlights locations where human trafficking is pervasive. Now in its third year, the “Unholy Tour” regularly brings together lawmakers, community activists and victims for a personal look at prostitution that often exists hidden in plain view.

Karla Jacobs, a member of the Georgia Commission on Women, joined Echols on the metropolitan Atlanta tour in 2016. Jacobs described in detail her observations.

“Our next stop was a quarter mile long dead-end street in Decatur off Candler Road near I-20,” Jacobs wrote. “On the right, we passed a rundown hotel with five or six DeKalb County police cars in the parking lot. Across the street was a $25 per night hotel that was notorious for attracting traffickers.”

“We visited one of the large truck stops in the city toward the end of the tour,” Jacobs continued. “Row after row of sleeper cab 18-wheelers filled the parking lot. Lot lizards, as the truckers call prostitutes, roam the parking lot looking for business.”

Police know the location of human trafficking havens. Two DeKalb County officers conceded this point on the “Unholy Tour." But as much as the public wants law enforcement to raid notorious dens of iniquity, arresting pimps, and saving underage kids, constitutional protections remain in place that prevent such action without due process.

Something as innocent as a law mandating hotels keep a record of every guest that stays in a room and providing those records for inspection at a police officer’s request would not pass constitutional muster.

Such a law did not withstand constitutional scrutiny.

Above objections of the 3,000-plus member National Sheriff’s Association, the Supreme Court overturned a City of Los Angeles ordinance requiring hotels to make available information about their guests to cops without a warrant.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for a 5-4 majority in City of Los Angeles v. Patel, said the statute violated Fourth Amendment privacy protections. The National Sheriff’s Association, whose members include most Georgia sheriffs, argued they needed the Los Angeles law and others like it to weed out human trafficking.

Limited resources and constitutional considerations are part and parcel of the constant battle waged by law enforcement to stop sex trafficking in Georgia and across the nation.

These challenges do not mean policy makers are giving up.

"Human trafficking at its core is when one person exerts their power over another," Commissioner Echols said. "In Atlanta, we have young women in disadvantaged situations being tricked, exploited and having their lives ruined by mostly men who profit off of their difficulty."

“The GBI and others are conducting stings and arresting perpetrators monthly.”

Public health officials are also increasing their public awareness campaigns about trafficking.

In DeKalb County, where the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reported 58 arrests in connection with the state human trafficking law, a summit featuring panelists from the county district attorney’s office and the U.S. Department of Health discussed ways citizens could get involved in reducing the crime.

“Human Trafficking is yet another critical public health issue that demands our attention and action,” said Dr. S. Elizabeth Ford.

Ford is the DeKalb County District Health Director.

This is everybody’s problem. You can’t just look away.”