SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) – The Sarasota Police Department is trying a novel approach to help women caught up in human trafficking.
Police officers are finding the women directly, treating them as people instead of criminals. During their work hours, these officers are visiting shady websites, such as Backpage. Their computer screens are filled with scantily-clad women.
The officers are looking up phone numbers for young escorts and prostitutes. “Yes, I’m calling about the ad online,” an officer says on the phone.
“You have a hotel room?” another officer asks.
These officers are trying to help. “You’re not in any trouble; there’s no criminal charges. You’re not under arrest, OK? Don’t hang up on me … We’re trying to give you options so that you could do something other than what you’re doing right now,” an officer explained to a woman.
Florida ranks second in the nation in sex trafficking, and many of the victims are in their early teens. “We’re looking for some of the ones that are really young and that may actually be juveniles,” Sgt. Robert Armstrong said.
Instead of trying to arrest them on the streets, Sarasota police employed this new method. They are talking with these women, getting to know them.
“You do this for a living every day just to pay bills? Is that what you wanna do?” an officer asked.
During this process, a counselor for a recovery program, Selah Freedom, is present. The counselor is ready to meet the women and show them a way out.
“A lot of times they’re real scared because they haven’t had a real positive interaction,” Misty LaPerriere with Selah Freedom said.
It takes time. Sometimes the women hang up only to call a few days later.
In the past few weeks several women have left the streets and entered recovery, officials said. Sometimes these women are so brainwashed, they don’t see themselves as victims needing help.
But these police officers plan to keep doing this every month because, in many cases, these women don’t need jail time; they just need help.