EDITORIAL: Sex trafficking not just a big city issue

Perhaps no one was more surprised by recent sex trafficking arrests than the police themselves. The operation is revealing about the seamy side of life here. But it also reveals that local police aren’t content to just respond to accidents and take theft reports.

The eye-opening news came shortly before Christmas. In a relatively short operation, police ran an undercover sting operation that netted 15 arrests. They could have kept going and likely made more arrests. The suspects responded to online promotions, called, and made a “date” at an Ontario motel. Their date turned out to carry handcuffs. The operation also caught three women charged with prostitution and a Nevada man accused of compelling prostitution.

Police, social service agencies and human rights activists have come to see prostitution as far from a business arrangement between consenting adults. Far too often, the women – and some men – are compelled to perform. “Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery,” says the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control another person in engaging in commercial sex acts.

The hotline explains this is a profitable business. “Human traffickers believe there to be little risk or deterrence to affect their criminal operations,” the hotline’s website explains. And the hotline points a finger of blame at customers, whose trade of money for sex motivates traffickers “who seek to maximize profits by exploiting trafficking victims. Therefore, buyers of commercial sex need to recognize their involvement in driving demand.”

That recognition came into sharp focus locally earlier this year, when police and social service agencies attended a training about human trafficking. They learned trafficking is a big problem in the Malheur County, and formed the Tri-County Against Trafficking Task Force. For police, this wasn’t a routine training meant to check the box on continuing education.

The traffickers count on the lack of law enforcement investigations by agencies often strained to provide emergency service. They count on scarce resources for their victims and society’s ease at blaming women so victimized, a variation of “it’s their own fault.”

Fortunately, local law enforcement agencies listened intently to what they heard at the training. And then they acted. When drug investigators recently picked up information on sex trafficking, agencies banded together to see what could be accomplished by aiming police badges at the problem. The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office and the Ontario and Nyssa police departments were part of the operation.

The 15 arrests won’t stop sex trafficking here, but they serve notice that even a rural area isn’t immune to pernicious trafficking that demeans victims and communities. As important, we saw local police agencies willing to tackle an issue not normally on their beats. That’s enlightened law enforcement ready to innovate and not just serve. – LZ