ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Fighting this problem in the Tampa Bay area is a priority for law enforcement. Three years ago, the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force was created, and it's having an impact.
In 2019, the St. Pete Police Department got a grant for nearly $750,000 dollars to create the task force and bring together agencies across the area to fight human trafficking.
Major Nathaly Patterson is the task force coordinator. "We have 26 local, state and law enforcement agencies that make up the law enforcement component of the task force and we have 20 NGO's which are nongovernmental organizations or service providers."
She says to fight human trafficking, you have to know what it is. "When you take someone or you restrict someone's movement and in doing so you use the elements of force, fraud or coercion, to have that person commit a commercial sex act."
Patterson says you also need to recognize who's the most vulnerable.
"Juveniles and young adults. People who are looking for something that's missing, maybe they're looking for love. They want to belong somewhere or they have some type of destruction in their home life and they're looking for some type of acceptance."
And the task force is making a difference. From January 2020 through September 2022, member agencies opened 387 new investigations, reported more than 207 potential victims, made 212 arrests for human trafficking-related offenses and charged 56 people with human trafficking.
Patterson says the key is educating the public on how to recognize potential victims and report them. "We need to do better with educating the public on human trafficking and talking about the existence of the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force."
The initial grant for the task force just covered 3 years, but late last year an extension and more money were granted to keep the task force going.