OAKDALE - Often unseen, human trafficking can seem like a far away problem, something that rarely makes its way to the suburbs.

Don’t be fooled, said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput.

“A lot of people say, ‘That’s an awful problem, thank God it's not in my community,” Orput said, calling himself “the bearer of bad news.” In fact, he said, the people arrested for seeking out commercial sex are often neighbors and those being trafficked are, too.

Orput, along with Oakdale Police Chief Bill Sullivan, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom, spoke during a Jan. 27 panel discussion hosted by the  civilian-led organization Citizens Against Sex Trafficking at Oak Marsh Golf Course in Oakdale.

The citizen group is focused on community awareness around trafficking and changing mindsets that lead to the demand for commercial sex. It was formed as a complement to the East Metro Human Trafficking Task Force, which was established in 2015 and works to investigate and prosecute labor and sex trafficking operations.

In combating labor and sex trafficking, Orput said it’s difficult to walk the line between making sure people know how prevalent it is in their communities and just making people afraid. One solution could be community awareness events like the one hosted by CAST, he said.

Orput and the rest of the panel applauded the event’s large turnout. Among those in attendance were political leaders like Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, and Washington County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, as well as representatives from victim advocacy groups Breaking Free and Tubman.

Not just a women's issue

Sullivan warned against thinking of someone who pays for commercial sex as a “creepy guy down on the corner.”

“I think one challenge ... is for the general public to recognize that, not exclusively, but to a large extent, the buyers of these services are white, middle-aged males who are employed,” he said.

The panel pinned the existence of the commercial sex industry on one thing: demand.

“We wouldn’t have this problem but for the demand,” Choi said pointedly.

The largest obstacles in fighting sex trafficking are cultural, things that are “baked-in” our society, Choi said. He added it’s wrong to think this is just “a women’s issue” and that it’s critical to get more men involved.

“We still have this issue and will continue to have it for the next 40 years unless we as a community, as a culture ... start thinking about how we raise boys ... and think about doing some of that prevention work,” he said.

This, CAST President John Larson said, is exactly what the organization aims to do.

“We are focused on prevention,” Larson said. “We’ve learned … that we’ve got to go upstream because that’s where we’re going to get the most bang for our buck.”

The group is sponsoring an upcoming training event to be led by Lisa Hansen, a child sex trafficking survivor and educator on trafficking awareness and prevention.

Technology challenges

When Backpage, a personal advertisement website often used to buy and sell commercial sex, was shut down by the federal government in April 2018, “a lot of us rejoiced,” Orput said. “But at the same time it was a disappointment for us because it was such a target-rich place to go and find the young girls that are posting ads.”

Now, investigators must search eight to 10 other websites for trafficking victims.

“So it didn’t go away, it just migrated to several other places, which means we’ve got a lot more work to do to find them,” Orput said. “On the good side, we keep finding them. We just do.”

The task force has recovered 101 young women and one young man, he said.

Investigators also have the challenge of adapting to the use of apps in the commercial sex trade.

Orput mentioned the recent trend of strip mall “massage parlors” that often use Chinese adult women who are being labor trafficked. In these cases, evidence like emails and text messages often only exists in Chinese. This leads to major barriers in prosecution because of a shortage of interpreters in the state, Orput said.

How the public can help

Choi did not mince words when he described the prevalence of local men seeking commercial sex.

"If we were to post an ad somewhere on the internet today, I assure you that within two minutes that phone would start ringing, and we'd probably pick up about 160 calls from that one ad in an eight-hour shift," Choi said.

But he and the rest of the panel believes there are ways citizens can assist law enforcement and prosecutors in reducing the practice.

Backstrom encouraged people to voice their concerns to legislators and remind them of the need for funding in these areas. He also encouraged support of victims advocacy groups, which he called "critical."

Sullivan urged the public to remember that trafficking victims often cannot ask for help and to use their instincts and alert law enforcement if confronted with a situation that seems "off." This may include an interaction with someone who has a much older significant other or someone who appears submissive.

Trauma and abuse survivors are also much more likely to be victims of trafficking, as are runaway children and teenagers, members of the panel said.

Reasons to hope

Backstrom cited unprecedented collaboration between cities and counties as a reason to be optimistic.

"Law enforcement, prosecutors, we're working together today more collaboratively than we ever have before in terms of trying to address these types of issues, and we're going to continue to do this," he said.

Choi said he thinks trafficking cases may soon be prosecuted without victim testimony, which could prevent re-traumatization of survivors.

Orput noted advances in technology, such as "high-tech phone searching devices" now being used by the Oakdale and Woodbury police departments to gather evidence.

But one of the greatest advances has been in mindset, Sullivan said, with law enforcement's greater understanding of trafficking victims' vulnerability and how and why they enter the trade - and in treating them less like criminals.

"Probably the greatest innovation in the criminal justice system is the recognition of victimization," he said.