The Kansas City, Mo., Police Department’s (KCPD) Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Squad will be participating in the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s Human Trafficking Awareness Initiative January 9 through 13.
During their routine random commercial vehicle inspections, officers will be disseminating informational materials provided by Truckers Against Trafficking trying to raise awareness about the issue. Officers will also be visiting local area truck stops to circulate these items to truck drivers and the general public.
“Many think that this kind of thing happens somewhere else, to someone else, but we know it occurs everywhere and touches the lives of many right here in our own community,” said Sergeant Grant Ruark. “Our mission is two-fold; one, we want to get the word out to those who might need help that there is a way out, and two, we want to give the honest, hard working and caring commercial vehicle owners and operators the information they need to take action if and when they see this kind of thing going on.”
Since its inception in 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has identified 1,524 cases of human trafficking, and 3,160 victims were identified in these cases. The Hotline received 1,103 signals in 2021 from Missouri and 355 signals received were from victims or survivors of human trafficking.
According to Bureau of Justice statistics, a total of 2,198 persons were referred to U.S. Attorneys for human trafficking offenses in the fiscal year 2020, a 62% increase from 2011. Of those, 92% were male, 63% were white, 18% were Black, 17% were Hispanic, 95% were U.S. citizens, and 66% had no prior convictions.
“I and all of our Commercial Motor Vehicle Inspectors will be taking part in this program that’s sponsored by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) who routinely schedules initiatives to bring about attention to particular issues involving commercial vehicles,” Ruark said. “And for this one, they partner with Truckers Against Trafficking who provides us with materials to distribute to help get the word out that, one, there is help for those victims of this crime, and two, those in the trucking industry can play an important role in reporting when they see it.”
This week, during all of their commercial motor vehicle stops, they’ll be handing out wallet cards and window stickers with information that truckers can use to report a crime when they see it happening.
“The window stickers have on them a number that victims might use if they happen to be in the area of a commercial motor vehicle,” Ruark said. “The number is 233733 or BEFREE. We just hope that we get enough of these informational items out to members of the trucking industry so that the victims have an opportunity to see this information and take advantage of it. We want them to be able to escape the situation they’re in and escaping is the correct word. For the situation they’re in, they have to escape from it. They are true victims.”
In addition to distributing these during inspections, they will be visiting truck stops like Love’s Travel Stops, Pilot travel centers and Flying J travel centers in the Kansas City area to increase the number of truckers that they can get this information out to.
“I think this issue of human trafficking is what many people think happens somewhere else, to someone else, it only happens on the borders and only to people who are in disadvantaged situations,” Ruark said. “By definition, human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons, is a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in a commercial sex act, and it occurs everywhere, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, even right here in our own community.”
Ruark called members of the trucking industry the “eyes and ears on our roadways,” and asked them to report this crime.
“It’s important to understand the elements of human trafficking before we kind of go any further: force, fraud, coercion, obviously are elements of human trafficking,” said Sergeant Brad Dumit of KCPD’s Vice section. “Unless it deals with the juvenile, then those elements need not apply… Over the years we’ve kind of learned – human trafficking has been around forever – and as time has gone on, we’ve learned a lot more about it. The biggest part of the issues that we have with it are victims identifying themselves as victims and having that said, once we understand that they have been victimized, the second part of it is them feeling safe in their environment.”
Dumit said once victims feel safe, they can talk to social service providers and the police can do their job.
“The big shout out goes to our social service people,” Dumit said. “They work really, really hard, providing resources for these individual victims to feel safe, and everyone knows, that’s one of the biggest elements of life itself is, if someone feels safe and they feel like they can engage with us, then we can help them and we can stop that cycle. We can not only help that victim, but keep other victims from being victimized.”
Social service providers like RPOR and the police share information well, Dumit said.
“They’re probably a bigger part to all this because they have day-to-day contact with individual victims that probably don’t even know that they’re victims at the time, and the resources they provide and the things that they do for them allow us to then come in and actually be able to do our jobs,” Dumit said.
Ruark and Dumit were joined by all the members of KCPD’s Commercial Vehicle Enforcement section and representatives from Relentless Pursuit Outreach and Recovery, which operates a drop-in center for trafficked individuals on Independence Avenue in Historic Northeast, Chris Stout, Candace Spangler, Jared Weaver, Jennifer Weaver and Stephanie Wiley.
“We’re excited about this week and what it has in store for educating our city’s commercial vehicle industry and letting victims of this horrific crime know that we see you and we are here to help you,” said Spangler, the Outreach Coordinator and Analyst for RPOR.
Ruark said many truck drivers know that these crimes are happening, but don’t always know how to report them.
“This is just one week out of a 52 week year, right? This is not going to conclude on Friday. We’re not going to wrap this up, and tie a bow on it and be done,” Ruark said. “We’re going to keep doing this throughout the year. This is just the big kickoff. But yeah, we’re going to try to get the information out so that they know exactly what they need to do when they see it.”
Dumit said human trafficking is a very broad crime, and can happen in about a million different ways.
“A victim may be in Kansas City today, and they may be in Tallahassee tomorrow, so the jurisdictional boundaries that we deal with day in and day out are immensely enormous. It’s a mountain to cover with it,” Dumit said. “So that’s where our partners come in, not only social services that are standing here with me, and not only the commercial vehicle people, but our other partners such as FBI, [Homeland Security Investigators], because we have a wide scope of being able to deal with it.”
Truck stops are an easy place for people to prey upon other people, and when people are constantly on the move, it’s an easy way to keep someone from talking and feeling comfortable with law enforcement or social services, Ruark said.
Spangler said there’s many forms of being sexually exploited, and some people don’t realize they’re victims.
“You’ve got survivor sex where you are having sex with the individual to meet your basic needs – food, shelter, clothing – and then you’ve got the familiar part where you have been trafficked by a family member – moms, fathers, aunts, uncles – and then we’ve got the individuals who have as we call ‘aged out’ that are here in Kansas City, found on Independence Avenue or Prospect or Troost,” Spangler said. “At that point, they’ve gotten to a point where, being in the industry for so long, they have no skills, no job skills, no education or anything, and so they resort to the only thing that they know.”
RPOR meets victims where they are, identifies the barriers they’re facing, and gives support in the form of housing, treatment, and a community. Many victims don’t make it out the first time, and they see plenty of repeat visitors to the center.
“I would compare it to being in a domestic violence situation,” Spangler said. “The average woman exits out of a relationship eight times before she actually makes the decision to leave, and that’s how it is for the women who are being trafficked. It’s that sense of community and that sense of, ‘This is all I know,’ and just helping the women to see their options and laying out their options. A survivor is the person who knows their story the best.”
Spangler said she may know all the answers that worked for her when she made her way out, but that doesn’t mean she’ll know all the answers for the next person.
“I don’t know what that looks like for her, and so sitting down with her and just finding out what she needs, what it looks like for her to get out – whether it’s getting her reunited with family and getting her into a treatment, or getting her the therapy that she needs – that’s what Relentless Pursuit is trying to do.”
RPOR has seen 5,558 visitors in 2022, a thousand more visitors than the year before.
“We just wanted the girls to be able to have a place to come in and get a reset and offer them the showers, the change of clothes, and now the resources and birth certificates – because that’s one of the first things that traffickers take, or we hear it a lot that their stuff got stolen because it is hard to hold on to things out there – and we hold on to the things for the girls, we help them get the IDs and they just can just have that reset.”
Ruork said KCPD has done different sting operations with the social service groups. Of the victims they arrest or detain, 10% take the referral to a social service group and make their way out. He said the police and prosecutor’s office have a deal where if victims of sexual exploitation successfully make their way through a program, charges against them will be dropped.
“Of 10 people, usually we get one to two that really progressed through it,” Ruork said. “I know that number seems small, but it’s really not. If you can hit one or two here and there, then you can really grow upon that… I think that’s an encouraging number, even though it sounds small.”
“We are here to meet you right where you’re at with the support and services,” Spangler said. “You can call us at 816-301-5571. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can come to our drop-in center, which is located at 5108 Independence Avenue.”
The RPOR drop-in center is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. More information can be found at RPOR.org.