Officials lay out plans to combat sex trafficking at Super Bowl

Local officials on Wednesday laid out plans to prevent and disrupt sex trafficking during the Super Bowl week and beyond.

During the game week, law enforcement agencies plan on continuing efforts to recover victims, interrupt trafficking and arrest perpetrators, Minneapolis Police Sgt. Grant Snyder said. Meanwhile, local agencies plan on increasing public awareness, enhancing services for victims and preventing and disrupting buyers and sellers.

Officials explained these efforts Wednesday in front of the Minneapolis City Council Committee of the Whole. They stressed that this work is ongoing but that the Super Bowl on Feb. 4 presents an opportunity to bring more attention and resources to it.

“Sex trafficking happens 365 days,” said Amanda Koonjbeharry, who oversees Hennepin County’s No Wrong Door initiative. “We don’t want folks just engaged in this point in time, but we want folks fighting this horrendous crime all the time.”

Snyder said the “Guardian Angels” operation and associated recovery operations will be the cornerstone of law enforcement’s approach during the Super Bowl week. The law enforcement team will include officers and federal agents from about 20 different jurisdictions, he said.

“Guardian Angels” is a law enforcement program that targets buyers of underage sex. Agencies have officers pose as juvenile victims and aim to arrest buyers who are knowingly seeking such victims.

Typically 7 to 12 percent of people who respond to the initial ad make it through all elements of a crime and show up to be arrested, Snyder said.

In terms of an investigative presence, the majority of law enforcement’s efforts will be focused online, Snyder said. He added that the Minneapolis Police Department plans on collecting information from out-of-state agencies through its online portal.

That said, law enforcement will be prepared to respond to the street-level marketplace, Snyder said. He said he doesn’t believe there will be a huge increase in that marketplace, however.

According to University of Minnesota researchers, there’s some data showing the Super Bowl, like other large events, correlates with an increase in online sex ads. But the researchers say that impact is short lived and often overblown in the media and other reports.

Lulete Mola, director of community impact for the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, said the work around the Super Bowl is a continuation of efforts that have been happening for about six years.

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota launched a five-year, multimillion-dollar campaign in November 2011 aimed at ending sex trafficking in Minnesota. Foundation leaders hoped specifically to decrease demand for child sex trafficking, educate and mobilize public support, redefine sex-trafficked minors as victims of a crime and ensure access to specialized housing and treatment.

The campaign helped usher in major changes in Minnesota. The state Legislature passed the Safe Harbor Law in 2011, which redefined youth who engage in prostitution as victims and survivors, not criminals. The Legislature had also dedicated $11 million as of this past January to provide services to survivors.

The next phase of the campaign aims to reduce demand for sex trafficking, create protection strategies, increase visibility, outreach and services and build systems and infrastructure.

Koonjbeharry said Mayo Clinic is developing a gift registry that will allow people to donate items to shelters. The organization is looking to launch the registry in early December, she said.

She cited a pair of public-awareness campaigns funded by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, including one targeting men and boys.  The Duluth-based organization Men as Peacemakers is leading that campaign, which is called “Don’t Buy it” and promotes the message that sex trafficking isn’t a victimless crime.

On the street level, agencies and nonprofits such as The Link will have more staff available, increase drop-in center hours and put more teams of outreach workers onto the streets, Executive Director Beth Holger-Ambrose said. She said the agencies are working to increase the number of shelter beds available during the 10-day Super Bowl festival.

Officials with the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee expect more than 1 million visitors during the 10-day Super Bowl festival, which begins Jan. 26. That includes an estimated 125,000 arriving from out of state as game-goers and fans, according to a committee spokesman.