The underlying sex trafficking issue in Flagstaff

Arizona is considered one of the hotspots for human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the United States, according the the U.S. State Department. Nevertheless, state laws ­— many of which blame victims — have discouraged reporting these crimes in Flagstaff and in turn have led to a disconnect between the victims and number of arrests made.

Records obtained from the Flagstaff Police Department (FPD) show there has been only one recent arrest made in regard to suspected human trafficking in the area. The arrest was made Aug. 28, when FPD assisted the Department of Public Safety in the arrest of Samuel Bateman, who was traveling through Colorado City with three females in a truck trailer. Authorities said trafficking was not taking place and Bateman pleaded not guilty to tampering and endangerment charges. No other arrest for sex trafficking in Flagstaff  has been made over the past three years.

At first glance, this would seem like an isolated incident. However, when looking at the issue from the perspective of Kate Wyatt, director of human trafficking services at the Northland Family Help Center, sexual exploitation in Flagstaff is much more prevalent.

Since the inception of the Flagstaff Initiative Against Trafficking (FIAT) in 2017, Wyatt has recorded over 600 victim-reported incidents of exploitation in the area. This stark disconnect between victims and arrests is a problem Wyatt said is clouded in misconceptions about the nature of the crime.

Public perception of human trafficking and sexual exploitation is usually confined to sex workers who operate on the city streets, Wyatt said. However, since this is not the case in Flagstaff, many people do not realize it is happening in the community. Further misunderstandings involve the issue being limited to non-citizens, kidnappings or the use of travel, Wyatt added.

Wyatt said sexual exploitation in the community happens to people experiencing homelessness and even residents, often due to a long grooming process by a trusted individual.

“Typically, with exploiters, they build trust and a relationship with someone they are trying to exploit,” Wyatt said. “The exploiter will be providing them with whatever it is they need, and then unfortunately, they exploit them from there. It is not often that people are just taken.”

Wyatt said sexual exploitation in the community happens to people experiencing homelessness and even residents, often due to a long grooming process by a trusted individual.

“Typically, with exploiters, they build trust and a relationship with someone they are trying to exploit,” Wyatt said. “The exploiter will be providing them with whatever it is they need, and then unfortunately, they exploit them from there. It is not often that people are just taken.”

Wyatt said although people are kidnapped, especially in the neighboring tribal communities, it is more common for an exploiter to be someone with whom the victim has a relationship with already, sometimes even family members.

Under Arizona law, victims of sexual exploitation can be arrested on charges of prostitution. Wyatt said because of sensitivity training on the subject, law enforcement rarely does so; however, this law still acts as a deterrent for victims to report their experiences. Moreover, in the law enforcement database, sexual exploitation or trafficking is not listed as a victim crime type and is most often labeled as prostitution — an issue Wyatt said further attributes blame to the victim.

“We really need to change how we talk about sexual exploitation and victims and buyers,” Wyatt said. “Responsibility needs to be put back on the buyers.”

She said the state laws have not caught up with the current trafficking and exploitation problem and further perpetuate the crimes. While A.R.S. 13-3214 does place some responsibility on the buyer with a fine, it also leaves the following punishments — being arrested or listed as a sex offender — up to the jurisdiction of the case, Wyatt added.

A solution could be to create harsher punishments for the criminal solicitor, something Wyatt and her team brought to the attention of city officials in August. When the buyer is merely charged a fine and is able to walk away from the situation without jail time or a stain on their record, she added, it does not do justice to the impact of their actions.

Wyatt said the main reason for the continued existence of sex trafficking in the area is the demand; this is primarily localized to the dark web. Wyatt suggested these harsher punishments to create a system of recourse that will make new buyers think twice about their actions thereby driving down demand.

Councilmember Adam Shimoni assisted Wyatt in her address to city council and said he stands by her position to drive down demand. One solution presented in the address was a partnership with other cities and outreach organizations to discuss possible avenues to cut into the sex trafficking cycle.

“I totally see value in addressing the policies at our police department to better support the victim but on the other side of the coin, we can also really partner and embrace the resources that are out there,” Shimoni said.

The Flagstaff City Manager’s Office is set to announce a report with recommendations to city council Dec. 13. The office declined to comment on the contents of the report prior to that date as it has hired a consulting firm to conduct the research.

“Something I plan to bring up is that we should be reviewing our policies at our police department to ensure that they are victim-centered,” Shimoni said. “All the other things such as partnerships will also be a point of focus.”

Misconduct within FPD’s Operation High Country Hydra, which conducted stings on eight Flagstaff massage parlors in 2019, came to light this past summer, resulting in the suspension of two officers for participating in sex acts during the sting; as well as the intermediate leave of absence by Chief Dan Musselman for the having knowledge of his officers’ misconduct.

Although the investigation determined none of the sex workers in the massage parlors were trafficked, the fact the sting was aimed at the possibility these individuals were trafficked and misconduct took place, has called into question FPD’s ability to tackle the exploitation issue in the community.

FPD was not able to comment before the publication of this story, but Wyatt said she has spoken to representatives from the police department who are eager to work closely with FIAT to better understand the plight of victims of sexual exploitation.

One such initiative is becoming a Cities Engaged Against Sexual Exploitation, or CEASE parter, which would provide training to local first responders and city employees to be able to recognize signs of exploitation in the community. Wyatt said FPD is willing to consider this partnership moving forward.

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