Hayley Vawter | Editor
Recently, fear about sex trafficking has taken social media by storm. In the last few months, several women in the Franklin and Phelps county areas have made social media posts about sex trafficking and their experiences with possible instances of trafficking. Every post is different, but several mention being followed at night by vehicles with no license plates, headlights being flashed at them while driving to indicate that they should pull over and strange men staring at or following them around stores or other locations. Each story brings light to the possibilities of sex trafficking, even in an area like Franklin County.
Sergeant Detective James Briggs, a detective within the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, gave an insight into sex trafficking and what it entails: “Sex trafficking happens when someone is brought into a group or business to be used for sexual acts against their will. They can be transported out of the area, across the country; there is no single place that is safer than the other,” he continued. “We consider sex trafficking to be what the feds and states do. We all have the same definition for sex trafficking.”
The United States Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “Modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”
To his knowledge, Sgt. Detective Briggs said there have not been any official reports filed with the sheriff’s department regarding the social media posts. “As of right now it is all social media traffic online, which is concerning because we don’t want people to share their experiences online, but not report it,” he said. He encourages anyone who feels like they are being followed or put in any type of uncomfortable situation to report it as soon as possible. “Social media opens a portal for anyone to locate or contact anyone at any time,” Briggs said. “Sex trafficking these days is a lot harder for law enforcement to track down, and a lot easier for a criminal to do.”
Regarding whether or not anyone feels they should report it when something scary happens, Briggs said, “It’s not my job to downplay any incident that happens, so if a situation is weird to you, then it’s weird to you. Whatever it is that makes you feel uncomfortable, then go and report it.” He recommends calling 911, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department or the local municipality where the incident occurred or is occurring as soon as possible.
Detective Briggs listed some of the warning signs to look out for if someone feels as though they might be being followed: someone who never breaks eye contact, following at a distance for an extended period and/or someone who is always where you are in stores or parking lots. Regarding what to do if you do see one or more of these signs, Briggs said, “The most important thing to remember is never leave the public area. If you are in a store, find a manager or make your way to the checkout and notify someone about the situation. Gas stations and most stores have security cameras, so there will be proof of the incident happening. But the absolute most important thing to remember is never leave the public area.”
He stated that if in a vehicle, never exit the vehicle. If possible, drive away as quickly and safely and get to a secure location. If someone is following in a vehicle call 911 or the business line for the sheriff’s department and give the dispatcher your location, so an officer can pull the suspicious vehicle over.
Sgt. Detective Briggs continued by saying that when something like that happens, give the best description possible to the police, so when any type of law enforcement officer investigates, he or she can get a clear picture of what the person looks like. “If it turns out to be nothing, then great, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a description that may turn out to be nothing at the time, but three days later because that person makes a mistake and does something else, that description really breaks thing open.”
A physical description as well as vehicle description can help an investigation immensely, so if ever in a situation that feels a little off, make a mental note of the suspicious person, what they look like, are wearing, and if possible what they drive. “When we talk about describing somebody, we are talking about all features you can see,” Briggs stated.
Briggs also recommends calling the police before calling anyone else: “You may only have 30 seconds to make a phone call and if you call someone else first, they may ask a lot of questions or not pick up at all and if you’re in a situation where that’s all the time you had, you may not be able to call the police afterwards. That’s why I always say call the police first, we’ll keep you on the line to make sure you’re alright, then you can call your family or whoever it is you might want to notify.”
Trafficking can happen anywhere; however, Briggs stated that high-traffic areas like Interstate 44 and locations on high-traffic areas like rest stops and gas stations are more known for being more dangerous locations. He said that if you must pull off the road, make sure where you do so is a very well-lit area and there are other people around to witness. When stopping for a bathroom break, make sure the restroom is inside the building, not located out of view from a camera or witnesses.
Several social media posts mentioned someone their flashing headlights to get the women to pull over their vehicles. In this situation, never pull over. Sgt. Detective Briggs said no type of law enforcement will flash headlights to indicate for you to pull over. “Even an unmarked police vehicle won’t have lights on the roof, but they will be in the windshield or grill of the vehicle. You will always, always see red and blue. By law we have to have those red and blue lights.”
He also said that if you are ever wondering if you are being pulled over by an officer but aren’t sure, call into the police department or highway patrol, etc. and they will confirm or deny that it is in fact an officer pulling you over. “That is a totally justifiable reaction. If you are ever second-guessing the situation then call and confirm. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Similarly, if you are being followed by someone who is acting suspicious in a vehicle and has no license plates report it. “If this vehicle is driving erratically, the driver is making hand gestures or flashing their lights and you see they do not have any license plates, call the police and be as descriptive as you possibly can.” He encourages paying attention to vehicle description as closely as possible. Take note of what might be missing or broken that could help identify that vehicle later. If the vehicle does have license plates, try as best as possible to get the license plate number to report to police.
When asked if Franklin County has a sex trafficking problem, Sgt. Detective Briggs said, “Franklin County is just as likely for something to happen as it would anywhere else. No one should think that just because it is Franklin County that it’s not going to happen, we have I-44, we have major highways that come through here, so it could happen,” he stated.
“I don’t think it is so much a problem as it is a possibility,” he stated.
Sgt. Detective Briggs encourages anyone who has experienced any situation like this to call the sheriff’s department and report it. No matter how long ago the incident occurred. He also said if the incident has been reported to a municipality, you may also call the sheriff’s department and make a report notifying them of issue as well. “You will never be looked down on for reporting something like this, I don’t want anyone to be afraid to report something because they don’t think it is a big deal or it will turn out to not be a big deal. I always tell people to report everything, and we will worry about it later, because you just never know what could happen.”
For more information on human trafficking, visit the Missouri State Highway Patrol website, mshp.dps.missouri.gov; the FBI’s website, fbi.gov; Polaris Project, polarisproject.org and End It Movement, enditmovement.com.