MICHIGAN STATE POLICE (MSP) Trooper Steve Kramer can be seen discussing human trafficking with Linden Middle School students on Tuesday, Nov. 28. Kramer, who was joined by Trooper Amy Belanger, gave two, one-hour, interactive presentations to the school’s male students, while Belanger talked with the female students on Monday, Nov. 27. The presentations are part of an MSP initiative to raise human trafficking awareness in Genesee and Shiawassee counties.
The troopers work with the Human Trafficking Task Force of Shiawassee County to spread awareness, rehabilitate and counsel victims, and identify and monitor suspects. Since the task force’s creation in 2016, the number of suspected traffickers in Shiawassee County has decreased significantly, according to Belanger.
The duo has spoken with students in the Durand, New Lothrop and Owosso school systems, the Laingsburg Lions Club, the Greater Shiawassee Association of Realtors, professionals in the medical industry, and the Shiawassee County Road Commission, along with many other schools and organizations throughout Genesee and Shiawassee counties.
(Independent Photo/Graham Sturgeon)
The Human Trafficking Task Force of Shiawassee County (HTTFSC) was formed in 2016, with meetings held at the SafeCenter in Owosso. It began with SafeCenter employees, Michigan State Police and Owosso Public Safety officers, members of the Shiawassee County Prosecutor’s office, the Child Advocacy Center and the REACH Runaway Program, and it has grown to include Memorial Healthcare and Covenant Eyes, among others. Although no human trafficking rings have been discovered in Shiawassee County, there have been several instances of Shiawassee County residents being affected by the growing phenomenon.
The establishment of the HTTFSC led to a more organized crackdown on human trafficking countywide, but human trafficking had been on the radar of Shiawassee County law enforcement agencies for much longer. Michael Olsey, an Owosso police officer, explains how he first learned that human trafficking existed in Shiawassee County.
“Three years ago, the FBI came to one of our meetings and gave us a list with the names of 25 people who they were monitoring in the Owosso area in relation to human trafficking, both potential victims and suspects,” Olsey said. “That is when I realized that this is happening in our community. And since then, a number of human trafficking rings have been broken up in neighboring counties involving victims from the Owosso area. A lot of the cases we’ve seen involve the drug trade, especially the use of methamphetamine.”
Michigan State Police Trooper Amy Belanger concurs that drugs are a common tool traffickers use to manipulate their victims. “Guns and drugs are the fastest-growing criminal industries in America, followed by human trafficking,” Belanger shared. “They really go hand-in-hand. Traffickers give their victims drugs, such as meth, so they can go for longer periods of time. That leads to the victim becoming dependant on the trafficker to supply them with drugs, and it can be very difficult to break away from that.”
Belanger notes that awareness is very important in the fight against human trafficking. Instances of human trafficking have been reported on social media at an ever-increasing rate over the past year, which has led to an increase in human trafficking awareness. However, Belanger reports that those stories and warnings have caused many people to get the wrong idea about how human trafficking happens. While it is smart to be on guard when out in public, the fear of being kidnapped by human traffickers has obscured the more common grooming techniques traffickers employ.
“Only about three percent of human trafficking victims are kidnapped, while 64 percent of victims are coerced into trafficking,” Belanger said recently. “That is the biggest misconception we deal with. It is always good to be aware of your surroundings in public places, but kidnapping is not the most common way people are lured into human trafficking.”
Traffickers do approach potential victims in public, but that initial encounter is more commonly a way to begin to establish a relationship. According to Belanger, the trafficker or his “Bottom B,” which is the term for a pimp’s most trusted prostitute, will approach a target, using flattery and other coercive methods to build trust. Through interviews with alleged and convicted human traffickers, Belanger has learned that traffickers can often identify a solid target almost immediately, and that they can tell if they have won their target’s trust within the first eight minutes of a conversation. If they feel the target is buying their story, the trafficker may invite the target to a party or set up a time to talk later. Since the average age of trafficking victims is 12 years old for boys and 13 years old for girls, being noticed or praised by an older person is often enough to successfully coerce a vulnerable teenager.
Potential victims are also approached online, where traffickers use anonymous, teenage-specific social media platforms to meet under the guise of being a fellow adolescent. Similar grooming techniques may then be employed, or the trafficker could use a different strategy, such as sextortion. In these cases, the trafficker will establish a relationship with a target, and after gaining their trust, ask to trade pictures. After the young victim acquiesces, the trafficker uses the pictures to blackmail, or extort, the victim into following their orders.
Officer Olsey and troopers Belanger and Steve Kramer offer several tips to help identify human trafficking in our communities. Kramer reports that middle school-aged children are the most recruited by traffickers, and according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), females are targeted in nearly 85 percent of cases. Runaway or homeless teens are especially vulnerable to trafficking.
The local professionals stress the need for parents to pay close attention to who their teens are texting, messaging, or meeting outside of school. As Olsey says, “Raise your children for the world we live in, not the one you wished we lived in.” Also, it is important for community members to look out for their neighbors and report any suspicious activity.
“It is always better to call and have everything be fine than the other way around,” said Kramer. “Anyone who suspects someone is involved with human trafficking, just report it; call the National Trafficking Hotline and the local authorities will be dispatched. You never know what detail might put a case over the edge.”
The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached by calling (888) 373-7888, or by texting “HELP” to 233733. This will allow for the continued improvement of human trafficking statistics gathering nationwide, which has been lacking until recently. Additionally, more information can be found by visiting www.humantraffickinghotline.org or www.polarisproject.org.
The Human Trafficking Task Force of Shiawassee County meets at 11 a.m. on the second Tuesday of every month at Covenant Eyes, 1525 W. King St. in Owosso. The public is welcome to attend the meetings and to get involved with the organization.