Several obstacles challenge human trafficking crackdown in Louisiana

Lack of manpower, accurate data, cooperation limit successful convictions

By: - November 29, 2022 10:48 am

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A 2019 police sweep that targeted illegal prostitution at massage parlors in Calcasieu Parish shut down about a dozen of the businesses, according to Benjamin White, who worked undercover for the sheriff’s office. It resulted in about 35 arrests, including some of the key people involved in trafficking the women forced to work there.

A day later, all of the locations had reopened, according to White.

“Up and running the next day, like we didn’t do anything,” he said. “So for law enforcement – after the work hours we put in – when we see that, we’re like, ‘Hmm, OK.’” 

White shared his experience Monday at the State Capitol with fellow members of the new state Task Force on Human Trafficking Arrests. Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, created the panel through a resolution earlier this year and chairs it. 

The task force has been directed to look at the disparity between the high number of reported trafficking incidents and the low number of related arrests. 

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The accuracy of data on human trafficking in Louisiana was called into question at Monday’s meeting. Capt. Belinda Murphy, head of the Louisiana State Police Special Victims Unit, referenced a survey from the state Department of Children and Family Services last year that placed the number of incidents between 700 and 900. 

“Our first question for them is where are you getting those numbers because we’re not seeing those numbers,” Murphy said, stressing that the reported totals could very well be valid. 

She explained that while some reports from family members and service providers could be redundant, the actual number could be higher because there is still a lack of training for law enforcement officers to recognize and relay instances of trafficking.

Dana Hunter, who leads Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Office of Human Trafficking, said incidents are most likely underreported because the only data her staff collects so far comes from service agencies, primarily children’s advocacy centers. That’s highly likely why statistics reflect two-thirds of trafficking in Louisiana involve children, she said. Law enforcement agencies are not yet providing trafficking data to the office, Hunter said.

Members of the task force shared various reasons for the low number of trafficking arrests. They ranged from difficulty getting survivors to testify against their captors in court to police manpower shortages that limit the number of officers assigned to what are often lengthy investigations.

“That kind of long-term, slow-to-develop investigation is hard to incentivize,” said Clay Walker, Caddo Parish juvenile services director. He contrasted low-profile trafficking busts to narcotics operations, where police can display the drugs, cash and weapons seized to grab the attention of news media.

Another revelation from the task force meeting involved the Department of Children and Family Services, which Murphy said does not share information with State Police about who refers trafficking cases to them. The agency cites state law that makes it illegal to divulge referral sources, she said. Mizell added she “had no idea” that law existed.      

The task force has a Feb. 1, 2023, deadline to compile recommendations and suggest proposals to the Louisiana Legislature.

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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

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