Central Texas human-trafficking strategy draws national attention

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) A select group of law enforcement from across the country is in Waco this week learning how the 'heart of Texas' tackles human trafficking.

McLennan County Sheriff's Office Detective Joseph Scaramucci trains a class of about 35 law enforcement members from across Texas and the U.S. on best practices to combat human trafficking. (Photo by Rissa Shaw)

Organizers of the week-long seminar, the 2019 Human Trafficking Institute at the McLennan Community College Emergency Services Education Center, say Waco is being recognized nationally as a model for fighting trafficking through teamwork.

"Waco and the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition have been sort of leading the country," said Rochelle Keyhan, CEO of Collective Liberty, a a national non-profit focused on supporting local law enforcement across the country make sure they have uniform access to the best practices for combating human trafficking.

She calls it a "massive problem," but a fixable one, saying if jurisdictions work together using the best data intelligence available, they can "supercharge" efforts to end trafficking, and traffickers.

"They're connected all over and if our approach and our response isn't just as connected if not more connected, then they're going to keep running circles around us, so when we can build rapport, connect different jurisdictions to one another and help facilitate that data sharing and those relationships, it really does maximize the impact we can have on human trafficking," said Keyhan.

Collective Liberty puts on 2-4 "institutes" a year, and picked Waco this year because it's "a unicorn," she says.

"Even some of the most resourced jurisdictions in the country are not as cohesive as the task force they have here," said Keyhan.

She says McLennan County is successfully combating human trafficking, and others want to learn how.

"When a mid-to-smaller size county like McLennan County can really pull their resources together and eradicate cert types of trafficking from their community, it's a really hopeful example of the fact that anyone can do it if we can get it done here," said Keyhan.

Collective Liberty partnered with UnBound and the McLennan County Sheriff's Office to train law enforcement officers from around the state and U.S., including Colorado and Massachusetts, how to conduct better human trafficking investigations.

"We just started looking at how we've made Central Texas such a hostile environment for traffickers and it kind of became clear it was probably good to bring people in and train them on how we're doing operations," said Joseph Scaramucci, a Detective with the McLennan County Sheriff's Office specializing in human trafficking.

So what's Waco doing that's catching the attention of cities five times its size? Scaramucci says it's the way they support human trafficking victims.

"How to approach them and treat them and the psychology behind their victimization, and ultimately how to shift the focus of human trafficking investigations from victims, to defendants and offenders," said Scaramucci.

Scaramucci says he and the McLennan County Sheriff's Office has helped more than 225 victims in four years.

Cities like Denver have taken notice.

"They've done a really excellent job here in integrating this model of working with a community-based victim advocacy group," said Lara Mullin, Denver's Senior Deputy District Attorney. "That's really made a tremendous difference in terms of integrating them into police operations, having them be the first point of contact for victims when they identify them, whether it be at a Chinese massage businesses or elsewhere, and they've made a lot of progress on those kinds of cases where law enforcement, frankly, across the country, have been failing."

Mullin and her team from Denver PD told KWTX they've learned valuable tools to take home.

"We're a small army taking on a large battle," she said.

A big part of that battle is changing the mindset about sex trafficking and prostitution, officials said, and on Wednesday the group of about 35 dove-in by doing mock stings at a local hotel.

"Just getting out there and learning and seeing different ways that things are done that are not typical of how they've been done for the last 30 years in law enforcement, getting to walk through it with hands-on training, changes the learning I think, quite a bit," said Scaramucci.

After the hands-on training with mocks busts, the group went back to MCC.

They'll be there through Friday, hoping this week of training will have a positive impact on victims for years down the road..

"I can go out today and say recover ten victims, if I can train 30 other people to do the same thing, we have 300 victims that are coming off the streets," said Scaramucci.