This is the latest column by a veteran Southeast Michigan police officer who’ll be identified after he retires in the next few years. He answers reader questions and provides perspective on police issues. Send questions to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter (@AnonymousCopDD) and Facebook.
By the Anonymous Cop
I've been asked lately what crimes have gotten worse since the Covid-19 pandemic has kept people at home and away from most social situations.
Three come to mind: Human trafficking, domestic violence and drug abuse. In my next three columns, I’ll address why they are getting worse and what they really mean from the perspective of us frontliners.
Let me start with the crime that grabs everyone’s attention: human trafficking.
People seem to think human trafficking means that a bad guy is going to kidnap their children and smuggle them off to some far away place to be sold into sexual slavery. Both in pandemic and at those long-ago neighborhood parties, I have been asked on several occasions a version of “Is it safe to let my daughter go to the mall? Because I heard girls are kidnapped and human trafficked from there.”
One friend who resides in a wealthy suburban neighborhood was concerned that her daughter would get kidnapped off the sidewalk while riding her bike. Then those human traffickers would force the pre-teen into prostitution.
None of this is a real concern the way it’s perceived.
I hate the term “human trafficking” because it makes people think the kidnapping-selling into slavery-forced prostitution by gangs of strangers is what randomly happens to young girls.
The trafficking reality
Human trafficking is simply making someone do something with their body that they do not want to do. It is essentially prostitution, but it can also be unpaid forced labor. And it doesn’t usually involve strangers, organized crime or global networks.
According to the Michigan Attorney General’s definition, human trafficking is “a form of modern-day slavery in which people profit from the control and exploitation of others. This crime occurs when a trafficker uses force, fraud, or coercion to control another person for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or soliciting labor or services against his/her will. Victims include children and adults who are forced, deceived, or coerced into commercial sex acts and/or labor or services against their will and who often receive little to no compensation.”
Kids are not being kidnapped. Whew.
But adults and juveniles are being forced into committing sex acts against their will. With COVID causing so much financial strain for people, some are resorting to what we call “survival sex.” An adult or juvenile is expected or required by someone else – with money for rent, mortgage, food, toys for kids – to perform sexual acts to acquire basic needs for food or shelter.
If the victims are facing eviction and homelessness because they cannot afford rent, they may be coerced to perform sex acts for a discount on the monthly rent or to put off the eviction for another month. Juveniles struggling to find food may be coerced to perform a sex act in exchange for a couple of tacos.
The solutions for this are far beyond my profession. Eviction bans are a start. Employment and financial security solves a lot. On a more practical level, choose your partners more wisely or find family or roommates to share living space, and respect each other.
Some of those are more adult issues. Let’s get back to moms worrying about their daughters riding their bikes – or whatever your equivalent is.
Don’t worry as much about your kids outside. Be afraid of what they’re doing on your internet.
With COVID restrictions keeping children isolated from friends and school, they turn to the internet to keep and create new social contacts, and this is where we get the majority of our “human trafficking” cases now.
Kids meet new “friends” online through social media apps. Those “friends” are actually the bad guys. Through chatting, messaging and photo sharing, the bad guys eventually learn details about the victims’ families. As the online “friendship” develops, the bad guys get access to the victims’ friends’ contact information, maybe even their addresses.
Then, the bad guys convince the victims to send some flirty photos. And flirty turns to “dirty.” But trust has been built, the teens don’t have the same discretion or judgement, and if their parents or other adults in their lives haven’t had “the talk” about the internet …. well, let’s just we’ve seen plenty of photos that we shouldn’t have.
Now the bad guys have photos in hand, and they eventually threaten to send the pictures to all of the victims’ family if they don’t send more photos, which usually escalate in graphic detail.
So no one has been kidnapped but your kids are being human trafficked in their bedroom while you are in the kitchen making dinner.
Not just your daughter
I used gender-neutral pronouns because this human-trafficking scenario happens to males also, both the survival sex and the online extortion. Pre-teen or teen boys meet a pretty girl from another school online. Because of Covid they can’t meet in person. One chat leads to another, then pictures are sent.
The victim isn’t actually chatting with a pretty girl from the same grade in another school. He is actually about to be trafficked by some creepy, perverted adult who lives in another state.
But now, as the situation escalates to the photo sharing I described earlier, the boy feels the shame of what he was coerced to do. The fear of getting found out can lead to victims committing suicide. I have seen it happen, and I’d bet part of my pension it’s going on in every city and suburb in metro Detroit.
These are some of the toughest cases we cops deal with. So please help us.
Talk to your children about the dangers of actual human trafficking – not just avoiding van giving out candy at the playground, but learning about how to communicate online, being aware of the potential of anonymous contact no matter how innocent it may seem.
Parents tend to think their kids are technology savvy – and they are. But they are not emotionally savvy. And that’s what leads to online “friendships” that become actual human trafficking.
With your kids, be open and willing to listen so they and even their friends feel safe in telling you what is happening. Pay attention to desperation and loneliness not kidnapping. And ensure they know that you’ll be patient with their shame because you won’t have a choice if they choose a tragic solution of their own.
If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, please contact your local police – 911 works everywhere.
In Detroit, Alternatives for Girls is a great program.
More information is also at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website.
Please keep sending your questions and I will answer them as honestly as I can. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
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