Oakland County takes steps to thwart human trafficking

By: Andy Kozlowski, Tiffany Esshaki | Madison - Park News | Published February 2, 2018

OAKLAND COUNTY — Police in Madison Heights and other communities across Oakland County have been hard at work fighting human trafficking. Recently, the county has begun implementing a major new initiative to raise awareness for the crime.

In the Commissioners Auditorium in Pontiac Jan. 11, the Oakland County Commission was joined by leaders in law enforcement, health and human services, and state and local government to announce the launch of a new resource website made available through the county’s main webpage. The press conference was held on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, which recognizes the estimated 21 million people globally who are victims of human trafficking crimes.

The message delivered by the speakers Jan. 11 was clear: Human trafficking occurs everywhere, even in Oakland County, and it can’t be thwarted by police alone.

“People kid themselves that it can’t happen here, when in fact Michigan is in the top eight states in the country for human trafficking, and that’s not a top 10 list we want to be on,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said during the press conference.

The speakers — who included board Vice Chairman Michael Spisz, Commissioners Eileen Kowall and Janet Jackson, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, Director of Oakland County Health and Human Services Kathy Forzley, and Southfield Police Department Chief Eric Hawkins — boasted about the site as an informational center for awareness advocates, social service professionals and citizens alike for information on what can be done to stop human labor and sex trafficking, and where victims can go to find help rebuilding their lives.

“This site, we realize, is in its infancy. But it’s intended to grow rapidly and expand and become a one-stop shop for information on (ending) human trafficking,” Forzley said.

Jackson addressed the crowd as the representative for Southfield and Farmington Hills on the county commission, saying that Southfield and Madison Heights are hot spots in southeast Michigan for human trafficking. She noted major trafficking ring busts as recently as last August at a Southfield hotel, where a suspect was shot and killed during a sting operation.

In October 2017, the Madison Heights Police Department worked with an FBI Oakland County Gangs and Violent Crimes Task Force, as well as the Southeast Michigan Crimes Against Children Task Force, to conduct a sweep that arrested nine individuals for various crimes dealing with prostitution in the city. The sweep specifically targeted the human trafficking of minors.

In addition, Madison Heights police worked with the FBI to make another five arrests involving human trafficking based on tips received from citizens.

Madison Heights Police Chief Corey Haines said residents should report any activities they find suspicious.

“Human trafficking, drugs and prostitution are interrelated,” Haines said. “In the hotel areas, people should look out for rooms that have a lot of short-stay traffic — multiple people going into the hotel rooms for short periods of time. The same is true for apartment complexes. Apartments that have a lot of short-stay visitors (are suspicious).”  

At the conference, Bouchard pressed legislators in the room to improve the tools available to law enforcement to thwart trafficking activity, noting that Michigan is one of just two states in the country that prevents wiretapping by state and local investigators.

With that resource unavailable, he said citizens can help by reviewing the warning signs of human trafficking victims listed on the website, which range from drug and alcohol abuse to memory loss, and difficulty with socializing or basic life skills. Bouchard said some victims of trafficking may be taught to fear law enforcement or intentionally left in the dark about things, such as their address, so they can’t try to escape bondage.

Asked how often tips from concerned citizens lead to the discovery of a human trafficking situation, Bouchard said simply, “Not often enough.”

“Some people feel they don’t want to bother us; they may not know for sure whether it’s related to that,” he explained. “We want to check it out. Please call us and allow us the opportunity to save that life and bust up one of these rings.”

On the website, citizens and professionals can get information on training and webinars best suited for their needs, and Forzley said numerous agencies around Oakland County have already been trained in human trafficking assessment, including medical staffers and even restaurant health inspectors.

Haines said his department has committed itself to the cause.

“The (Madison Heights Police Department) is actively working with Oakland County … to help prevent trafficking, educate our citizens and hold those responsible accountable for their actions,” Haines said.

For more information, visit the website at OakGov.com/HumanTrafficking.