Human trafficking: Denver police get $300,000 federal grant to help combat growing issue

The Denver Police Department has received a $300,000 federal grant to help combat human trafficking.

The money will pay for a few officers to work full-time in conjunction with the FBI on cases in which women and, more rarely, men are forced into prostitution, says Denver vice Lieutenant Aaron Sanchez.

"We wanted the grant so we could free up detectives to work on long-term investigations," Sanchez says.

A 2006 Colorado law defines human trafficking as selling, exchanging, bartering or leasing a person for money or any "thing of value." Most law enforcement agents and advocates recognize that trafficking also involves a level of force, fraud or coercion. In other words, the person being sold was forced or coerced into it.

"Generally, a trafficking victim starts out as prostitution suspect," Sanchez explains. Sometimes that suspect is as young as thirteen-years-old and is giving all of the money she makes to a pimp, who beats her if she doesn't do what he wants. To complicate matters, victims are often protective of their pimps, advocates say. In some cases, a pimp may have been the first man to show a young girl attention or affection, despite the abuse.

"We have to help them realize they are victims," Sanchez says.

But that process takes time, he says. "You have to talk to the girls," Sanchez says. "Prostitutes are not friendly. It's not like you're talking to a child-abuse victim or a fifteen-year-old sex assault victim who wants to cry out and wants to explain what happened or is just scared. These girls just flat out say, 'Nope, that's not what's happening.' The officers have to be savvy to figure out who they are, what their age is. They have to have compassion to want to help them rebuild their lives."

Currently, human trafficking investigations are done by three detectives in the DPD's vice squad, Sanchez says. But they don't work on trafficking full-time; the vice squad is also responsible for liquor-license violations, illegal gambling and ticket scalping.

Now, at least one detective and possibly more will be reassigned to the FBI's Safe Streets Task Force, which was formed in 2004 to bring together local, state and federal law enforcement agents to combat violent crime. Thus far, the task force has largely focused on robberies. With the DPD's $300,000 grant, a small portion of that focus will now shift to human trafficking -- and Sanchez suspects the currently small number of cases will increase. Estimating the scope of the problem of human trafficking has long been an issue.

"I can guarantee you the numbers will increase," Sanchez says.

"I just don't know by how much."

More from our News archives: "Darrell Havens: Expert challenges police version of shooting that left 19-year-old paralyzed."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
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