Sex trafficking on the increase statewide and in Missoula, experts say

Missoula law enforcement and criminal justice officials met for a daylong training on human trafficking on Wednesday. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Human trafficking is second only to drugs as the largest criminal industry in the world, yet many people don’t realize that humans are exploited for sex in smaller cities within Montana, including Missoula.

On Wednesday, the Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force invited Seattle-based expert Peter Qualliotine to host a series of seminars at the University of Montana.

The seminars trained local law enforcement, medical professionals and the public about commercial sexual exploitation, or sex trafficking, and its many indicators.

“For both of these sessions, participants will walk away with a stronger understanding of commercial sexual exploitation, that they’re really going to be able to recognize indicators of sex trafficking when they see it happening,” Kat Werner, chair of the Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force, said. “What it also comes down to is really developing strategies to engage different sectors within our society that can help address commercial sexual exploitation.”

Werner said that sex trafficking can be hard to identify, and training local law enforcement and other professionals can raise awareness.

“We only see what our eyes are trained to see, so it’s easy to miss these things when you don’t really know what you’re looking for,” she said.

Guy Baker, a task force officer and detective for the Missoula Police Department, specializes in human trafficking and has taught over 75 trainings to more than 2,000 officers and justice system members in the state.

According to Baker, there have been about 10 cases per year for the past three years that involve trafficking, promotion of prostitution or prostitution.

“I can’t think of another crime that has more misperceptions associated with it both by the public, the justice system, law enforcement and the courts,” Baker said. “Everyone seems to think that this doesn’t happen in Montana, that it only happens in other countries or bigger cities in other states.”

Baker attended Qualliotine’s training and learned about the importance of changing sex buyer behavior and fighting gender bias and social causation factors. Qualliotine also discussed different formats of deterring sex buying through social media, ads and classes that educate on the harmful effects of the industry.

“Some format of some type of class for people who purchase sex is something that we’re lacking in Montana in our justice system,” he said. “But I think as awareness grows on the part of the community, law enforcement and the courts, that if we take a more proactive approach, hopefully enforcing this better will increase those numbers.”

Since the trainings started, the number of cases have increased, Baker said.

“After we first trained our patrol officers in 2014, my cases doubled the next year because they’re more aware of it. A lot of trafficking investigations begin with patrol officers,” he said.

The industry is driven by supply and demand, and many sex traffickers use the internet where their movements are hard to track. As a result, catching and convicting sex traffickers is a difficult task.

Key indicators that officers use to identify this crime include finding out if victims have free will, if someone is asserting power or control over the person, and if the person travels frequently.

Werner warns to never intervene directly with a situation and to instead call 911 or the non-emergency line at the local police department. Local organizations like SARC and the YWCA are also helpful resources, she said.

“That’s why I focus on education and awareness and really getting the word out and empowering people to use their knowledge and really recognize and respond because, again, all of us as community members can make sure that we effectively address this issue in Montana.”