Law enforcement agencies, advocates coordinate recovery operation for sex-trafficking victims, identify suspect in Jonesboro

FILE — Arkansas State Police headquarters is shown in this 2022 file photo.
FILE — Arkansas State Police headquarters is shown in this 2022 file photo.

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies partnered with community advocate organizations earlier this month to provide outreach and assistance to sex trafficking victims in Jonesboro.

Operation HART, which stands for Human Anti-Trafficking Recovery Team, conducted its outreach mission under that name the first time this month in Jonesboro.

"It's a team that we put in place with nonprofits, victim services providers and law enforcement to basically create a multidisciplinary team that will give services to victims of trafficking that arrive at locations to meet law enforcement," said Sgt. Matthew Foster, the Arkansas human trafficking coordinator within Arkansas State Police.

He said the team was named while thinking of the event in February, thinking of Valentine's Day and the alternative way to spell heart.

"It all kind of came together in February, naming what we've been doing," he said.

The team was able to offer services to five women and identify 30 more victims in northeast Arkansas, as well as one suspected trafficker during the operation, a news release from the Arkansas State Police said Monday morning.

The suspected trafficker was identified, questioned and detained earlier this month, Foster said.

The identity of the suspect was not immediately released, pending the ongoing investigation, state police said.

Two of the 30 victims identified were from the Memphis area and the rest were from Jonesboro or surrounding communities, Foster said.

Prior to and during the operation, intelligence analysts and law enforcement officers identified local victims, the release stated.

"It's extremely important to identify victims in the area so that the community and the citizens of Arkansas understand that human trafficking is real," Foster said. "I think a lot of people think that it doesn't happen here. Well, here we are in Jonesboro, Arkansas and we only looked at a couple days of ads and identified 30 individuals."

Law enforcement did not release the exact date or time frame of the operation in order to protect the victims and the community partners who donated hotel rooms, he said.

"Those five girls, their trafficker does not know that they were in contact with law enforcement," Foster said.

He said not releasing the exact date or location could help protect those victims.

These events operate in a way that keeps victims in mind, Foster said. Law enforcement will respond to escort advertisements and meet individuals at a hotel room with advocates and offered services, food and a "go-bag," Foster said.

The bag includes clothing, everyday essential items and other items, he said. A medical team is there and able to provide regular medical screenings as well as sexually-transmitted-infection screenings.

The operation was made possible through the coordinated efforts of representatives from federal, state, local and non-government organizations, including the Arkansas Attorney General's Office, Jonesboro Police Department, Arkansas State University Police Department, Department of Homeland Security Investigations, Federal Bureau of Investigation task force members and victim advocates from the Regional Intervention of Sexual Exploitation (RISE), the news release said.

"Thank goodness all these individuals were there that night, because they believe. They believe we can make a difference in Arkansas," Foster said.

After the meeting with advocates and medical teams has concluded, victims have a chance to talk to law enforcement.

"They're not arrested, they're not detained. This is all about giving someone choice. These trafficking victims, they haven't had a choice in a long time," Foster said. "That's the most important thing about Operation Hart, is that it's victim-centered and giving the individual choice."

"I want the victims to know that there's hope. That you can contact anyone and we will be there for you, it doesn't matter the time, the weather and it's okay. It's okay to receive services and ask for help," he said.

He said law enforcement is going away from the old method of having a victim show up and be arrested on prostitution charges.

"Prostitution is human trafficking. Prostitution is a word of the past," he said. "We need to educate Arkansans."

"I applaud the efforts of this coalition of organizations, which represent both law enforcement and victim services groups. It is only through this kind of intentional collaboration that we can make a real difference in the fight against human trafficking in Arkansas," said Attorney General Tim Griffin in the release from his office on Monday.

Four of the women contacted in Jonesboro voluntarily accepted the assistance, he said.

"A majority of them [told our teams] 'please keep doing this, there's girls out here that need it more than me,'" Foster said. "These girls didn't burn us, individuals kept showing up to the same location and have been positive about how we need to continue this."

Foster said it may take seven or eight positive interactions with law enforcement or service providers before someone is ready to exit the lifestyle.

Cindy Murphy, the spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Public Safety, said that human trafficking victims need multiple positive interactions.

"Oftentimes it takes multiple interactions because they may not initially believe they are victims," Murphy said. "It's not like if you were walking down Main Street and were robbed at gunpoint. Obviously to you, you are very clearly a victim in that scenario. It's a tougher nut to crack with these cases."

GROWING OUTREACH

"I want Arkansans to know that human trafficking is real. It's in their state, it's in their community." Foster said. "They're walking by a victim when they go to the grocery store. And traffickers and victims look a lot like every Arkansan."

This might be the first event under the name Operation Hart, but a similar operation took place in Little Rock in September, the state police said.

10 women and two girls were identified and offered services in Central Arkansas. Five women accepted assistance and all of the minors were taken into protective custody, the release from the state police said.

Additionally, 10 men were detained in connection with that operation, police said. Details were not immediately released due to the investigation being ongoing. Foster said that 59 victims in Little Rock were identified.

"That and the 30 in Jonesboro, that's a large number. Especially when you consider that one is too many," he said.

"As we continue and grow our unit, our team, the increase in identification is going to increase," Foster said.

He said he hopes that with more law enforcement training as well as community awareness about what to look for, more victims can be identified.

"The Arkansas law enforcement community and our victim service partners are on a mission to end human trafficking in Arkansas," said state police Director Col. Mike Hagar in the release. "We are working to give law enforcement the specialized training they need to embrace victims with compassion while they free them from perpetrators of this heinous crime."

Foster said that those who feel moved to help should look towards donating or working with local nonprofit organizations that help fight sex trafficking.

"We need help with go-bags, we need help with donations, food," he said.

"Law enforcement cannot do these operations by themselves. We need medical, we need victim services," the coordinator said.

Those wanting to report something can call law enforcement or email the Arkansas Human Trafficking Council at reportht@arkansas.gov.


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