A new series of public service announcements is aiming to tackle a crime across Western New York that most residents may not know is even happening – human trafficking.
Most Western New York residents aren’t aware that human trafficking goes on in their own cities and towns because, often, it hides in plain sight. Two public service videos – one dealing with sex trafficking, the other with forced labor – are trying to change that.
In the videos, members of law enforcement encourage victims to reach out for help, and bystanders to report. But what should residents be on the lookout for? Acting Erie County District Attorney Michael Flaherty explained “most of the victims are always under watch, they never leave. So they are living with the pimp, they have very little freedom of movement, they have no place to go.”
Victims may also be subject to long hours of forced labor at places like hair and nail salons, and never allowed to leave. Flaherty said they’re often trapped by drug use, poverty, or status as illegal aliens. He also noted that human trafficking can affect anyone.
“We commonly think of this as a problem with immigrants, or people from outside the county, but you can have victims from Tonawanda,” said Flaherty. “Movement is not required – you don’t have to cross state lines, you don’t even have to cross county lines. You could be a runaway from a suburb who has no place to go and that’s what we see in several of these sex trafficking cases.”
Erie County Sherriff Timothy Howard estimated about 110 cases have taken place over the last year in Erie County – an average of two per week. Howard said approximately two thirds of the cases have been handled under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney’s office, and the rest at the state level through the Erie County District Attorney.
Town of Tonawanda Police Officer Amanda Taber has dealt with some of those cases. Taber – who is featured in the new PSA Videos – has seen the impact of human trafficking on her community.
“You have people who are either under the influence of drugs, people that see people who possibly need help, are in distress, walking around,” said Taber. “Obviously, it can bring down the neighborhood. So hopefully people, instead of just looking at it and looking away and complaining about it, hopefully they can actually reach out and tell somebody if they see something going on.”
The Western District of New York Human Trafficking Task Force, which secured a $20,000 grant to make the video, has teamed up with the Greater Buffalo Metropolitan Crime Stoppers to use its tip line. Victims and witnesses of illegal human trafficking activities can call (716) 867-6161 to report. The calls are anonymous.
As law enforcement officials put it, of you see something and say something, you might just save a life.