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The impact of Lubbock's human trafficking operations

Human trafficking victims are often manipulated into the situation in order to survive.
Sally Kiknadze
Human trafficking victims are often manipulated into the situation in order to survive.

In May, the Lubbock Police Department released information about their fifth and sixth counter-human trafficking operations of 2023.

So far this year, these stings have resulted in 116 total arrests. The majority of charges include prostitution and soliciting prostitution, with six people indicated by Lubbock Police as victims of human trafficking.

Lt. Brady Cross with the Lubbock Police Department said part of every law enforcement agency’s goal is to provide help to sex trafficking victims they encounter, but those aren’t the only people they run into in these operations.

“You're going to find people that live this lifestyle on purpose, and are drug users or have warrants or carry weapons on them when they're not allowed to,” Cross said. “It's our hope that maybe folks will see these arrests and know we do the operations and that it makes it harder to carry out your criminal enterprise that is human trafficking.”

According to Lubbock Police annual crime reports, 16 prostitution operations took place in 2022, three more than the year before.

Through all of LPD’s operations last year, 102 people were arrested for solicitation and 67 people were arrested for prostitution, with 17 people indicated as human trafficking victims.

“There are times when someone may dress differently, or speak differently, or act in a way that you're not used to seeing,” Cross said. “Or they may actually just come out and reach out and say, ‘Hey, I need help. This is not my choice.’”

Advocacy organizations have trained law enforcement on how to identify victims of sex trafficking.

“Our folks that do these operations are trained to know what to look for. And when you have someone who lives that lifestyle day in and day out, and that's what they do, they're pretty comfortable and know what they're doing,” Cross said. “But if you find someone who's been forced into this, and isn't doing it of their own volition, there are oftentimes things you can key in on that would let you know that this isn't the norm for them.”

‘It’s all in the wording’

According to Leslie Timmons, the community education director of Lubbock’s Voice of Hope, the distinction is in the wording.

“Nobody in the line of prostitution chooses that line of work. They were recruited into that line of work, which is sex trafficking,” Timmons said. “Usually at a very young age.”

Voice of Hope began as the Lubbock Rape Crisis Center in 1975, providing free help to victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. The organization started working to find and help victims of sex trafficking in earnest around 2011.

Now, Voice of Hope has two full-time sex trafficking advocates serving the Lubbock community and 21 other counties.

Some elected officials, like Gov. Greg Abbott, have linked human trafficking to the wider issue of illegal immigration. However, Timmons said Lubbock mostly deals with domestic sex trafficking, victims who were born and raised in Lubbock, or at least in Texas.

“Another myth of trafficking is that these traffickers are going over to Mexico and bringing people back from third-world developing countries and really, that's not exactly the case,” Timmons said. “There's plenty of opportunities to find victims here in Lubbock and in Texas, and so they don't have to go through the trouble of going to another country and spending the money.”

Voice of Hope assisted 503 people in 2022, and 108 of them were sex trafficking victims. Of those trafficking victims, 14% were under 18 years old.

“We really wanted to find out about minors, so we surveyed teachers, people that worked with youth,” Timmons said. “We asked them if they saw any of these red flags and 73% had reported yes.”

According to Timmons, traffickers looking to recruit will mainly target minors between 12 and 14 years old. She said they often start by exploiting the victims’ emotions and relationship.“The biggest type of traffickers that we see are ‘boyfriend traffickers,’ where they're manipulating people into thinking that they love them,” Timmons explained.

Lubbock police said some minors have been contacted in their stings, but a majority of the people encountered by local law enforcement so far have been adults. These victims also carry their own range of needs, some of which are being met, to an extent, by their traffickers.

“A lot of them need financial support, housing,” Timmons said. “We'll start with counseling and getting them to the point where they recognize that they know what's going on in their life, and they're ready to make a change.”

In working toward meeting those needs, Voice of Hope partners with other organizations in Lubbock like Open Door, which offers survivor housing.

“Most of the people that we work with, and whatever they're charged with, they've gotten into it at a very young age,” Timmons said. “Once you're into it, it's really hard to get out of the life.”

Civil legal remedies for trafficking victims

Getting out of “the life” often requires legal assistance on some level. That’s where organizations like the Texas Advocacy Project come in. The non-profit provides free civil legal services for survivors of domestic and dating violence, abuse and human trafficking.

Heather Bellino, the CEO of the Texas Advocacy Project, described a cooperative effort between organizations across Texas to meet the physical and social needs of these victims on every level.

“Do they have food in their belly? Do they have shelter?” Bellino asked. “How can we unleash the full force of our coordinated community responses and all the partnerships that we have throughout the state to make sure that their basic needs are met.”

People who have experienced sex trafficking have often also experienced domestic or sexual violence and abuse, meaning the legal needs of these victims frequently align.

“When we expanded into trafficking from domestic violence, dating violence and sexual assault, it's because we're subject matter experts on civil legal remedies,” Bellino said. “And there is an invisible thread that some of these remedies can help victims, even though their victimization is very different.”

For these victims, their civil legal remedies can include protective orders, preventing child custody to an abusive partner, or relocation.“Yes, they do occasionally need that. But what we're hearing from the victims, what they need the most is expunctions,” Bellino said. “They need criminal record relief, and that we're able to help them with.”

Under the Texas Penal Code, prostitution is a class A misdemeanor, but becomes a felony if the person has been convicted three or more times, with a maximum sentence of two years in state jail.

The impact of a criminal record on someone’s ability to get a job or housing can then affect every need that follows, from food and shelter to self-actualization. Bellino said it becomes easy to see why many are manipulated into a choice of desperation.

“Somebody comes to me and says, ‘Hey, oh, you're beautiful, I love you, I can give you a place to live, here's a bed, come stay with me. Here, I have other friends that have gone through just that. They're living there, too,’” Bellino said. “Now the five of you, the ten of you, the twenty of you, are experiencing the same thing. So now you feel like you've got a sense of home and self and a community in that.”

According to the Texas Advocacy Project, nearly one out of every three human trafficking victims is recruited by a family member or caregiver.

Bellino said the responsibility to prevent human trafficking rests in how we respond to the traffickers.

“Can we help you to look at things critically? Sure. Is that going to stop somebody from being victimized? No,” Bellino said. “It's not going to stop somebody from being victimized until we can get the perpetrators and hold them accountable. And I mean really accountable.”

The criminal response to traffickers

One goal of organizations like The Polaris Project, which operates the U.S. Human Trafficking Hotline, is to shift the legal focus away from victims, and toward their traffickers. Between 2011 and 2020, the number of people prosecuted in the United States for human trafficking went up by 84%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Most who are arrested from the Lubbock Police Department’s operations are charged with soliciting prostitution. In 2021, Texas became the first state to make paying for sex a state jail felony on the first offense.

However, the high number of people charged with soliciting makes seeing all the charges through to a felony conviction a resource-intensive task for prosecutors.

An investigation by journalists in Harris County reported only 5% of felony solicitation of prostitution cases filed the year after the law was enacted ended in felony convictions, with 77% of dismissed cases ending in a “pre-trial diversion,” where those charged were required to take a “decision-making class” and either pay a fine or donate to the Houston Area Women’s Shelter.

Prosecutors in Harris County said the diversions are a matter of prioritizing resources, something Bellino said she understands. Still, Bellino said disrupting that demand side of human trafficking is part of making a major change, and the consequences could be tougher.

Promoting prostitution is a felony charge in Texas for taking money or leading others to participate in prostitution, with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on the first charge, and 20 years on the second. Over the past two and a half years, nine people have been arrested on a charge of promoting prostitution from LPD’s stings.

According to data from the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office, three people charged with promoting prostitution have been convicted, pleading guilty or no contest, since 2021.

Out of more than 150 prostitution cases brought to the DA’s Office in that time, most of them class A or B misdemeanors, six were prosecuted as felonies, with three of them being deferred.

Any charges for promoting or trafficking in Texas become a first-degree felony with a 99-year maximum sentence possible if minors are involved.

Lubbock Police said they will continue responding to local trafficking in the city, maintaining that a message is sent with these operations.

“It's our goal to try, and I don't know that it'll ever be eliminated,” Lt. Cross said. “But certainly we don't want people to think of Lubbock as a place that it's easy to do things like that.”

If you believe you or someone you know may be affected by domestic violence, abuse or sex trafficking, you can contact Voice of Hope at 806-763-7273 and speak to staff or a volunteer, available 24/7.

Brad Burt is a reporter for KTTZ, born and raised in Lubbock. He has made a point to focus on in-depth local coverage, including civic and accountability reporting. Brad's professional interest in local journalism started on set as a member of the technical production team at KCBD Newschannel 11 before becoming a digital and investigative producer.