It might seem like something that happens in TV crime dramas, but human trafficking, including sex trafficking, goes on here at home in the Killeen area.
Over the past year, several human trafficking busts have happened in the city.
Three women from Killeen were rescued by sheriff’s deputies in December at two massage parlors in the city; and in May last year, nine women were rescued from a Killeen motel, according to law enforcement officials.
“We want to save these human trafficking victims one at a time, that’s all we can do,” Bell County Sheriff Eddy Lange told the Herald earlier this month.
“We’re not putting victims in jail for prostitution or solicitation; if we can identify them as being a victim of this industry, then we get them in touch with people in UnBound and other organizations that can help them, rather than making them criminals. It’s been successful.”
Although the Killeen Police Department did not participate in the last sting in the city, which was spearheaded by McClennan County deputies, it has assisted the Bell County Sheriff’s Department on other human trafficking operations.
“We notify any agency when we go into their city,” Bell County Sheriff’s Department public information officer Maj. T.J. Cruz told the Herald. “We let KPD know (about the December sting) and they offered assistance, and in the past they’ve helped. We have a great working relationship with KPD. It’s been awesome.”
Cruz said that although no formal task force exists between the agencies, KPD “has always been 110 percent helpful.”
He said that KPD and deputies work together more often on narcotics-related operations because there already is a task force for those types of crimes that includes members of several Central Texas law enforcement agencies — the Bell County Organized Crime Unit.
For many human trafficking operations, though, additional manpower often is not needed or wanted.
“Sometimes the more people you have working on a sting, the more likely you’re going to be discovered, so we try to keep it at a minimum; we don’t need 100 cops,” Cruz said.
KPD Chief Charles “Chuck” Kimble told the Herald in an email that the agencies work “collectively.”
“We know that many of our victims and suspects live and operate in both of our jurisdictions so we work collaboratively for resolution on human trafficking cases,” Kimble said. “The sheriff’s office has county-wide jurisdiction to work any crime in Bell County and we work with them on cases that are within both our jurisdictions.”
He said that two KPD units, the Organized Crime Unit and the Special Victims Unit, investigate sex crimes, prostitution, abuse, labor trafficking and licensed business violation cases.
“These kinds of cases sometimes move into the realm of human trafficking, which is why our detectives who work in these units receive specialized training,” Kimble said.
Killeen’s police chief has been no stranger to community forums on the topic.
Kimble told the Herald at a forum last May that sex trafficking is an issue in Killeen.
“Trying to get victims to outcry and get help also is difficult because of the nature of the crime,” he said. “In the early stages, a victim might not even know they’re being groomed. It’s a hard crime to prosecute and also difficult to get hard numbers (on the number of victims).”
Bell County Sheriff’s Department
The sheriff’s department has been at the forefront of several human and sex trafficking operations in Killeen over the past year, but the issue does not begin or end at the county line.
“We’ve tried to get out in front of this, and we’ve been addressing it for the past 5 years,” Lange said. He said that Bell County has helped other counties including nearby Travis and Williamson counties.
“We learned how to do it — McLennan County helped us out quite a bit — and now we’re teaching other agencies,” Lange said.
Cruz said that trafficking activity tends to converge at crossroads. One interstate runs through Killeen and another, Interstate 35, is just a short jaunt down the road. Killeen also is within a day’s driving distance of a handful large cities.
“Interstate 35 runs through the heart of Texas,” Cruz said. “And we’re in the middle of a triangle between Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. We’ve learned from some of these victims that they might be in Killeen or Temple one day, and Houston the next. There’s a lot of traveling involved.”
He said that in the massage parlor operation, the target person was not even a Bell County resident. “He was running a business in the county.”
Although many details about planning operations have to remain secret, Cruz said that these operations take months of planning. “We have to determine a target date and location, while the Special Crimes Unit figures out what we’re looking at,” he said. Cruz said they try to run a human trafficking sting at least twice a year.
Of course, the community itself has a major role to play.
“Human trafficking is a nationwide, a worldwide, problem,” Cruz said. “I encourage people to be aware of their surroundings, because you might see someone who needs help but who doesn’t know how, or can’t, ask for help. You might notice someone who just doesn’t seem to belong with that other person. Listen to your gut. You might just save someone’s life.”
Cruz encourages parents, especially of teenagers or pre-teens, to be involved in their child’s life. “It’s a good idea to know who their friends are and what social media apps they’re using, because many times predators use these apps,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to just sit down and talk to your children. Have family dinners together and talk.”
Plenty of information about the issue is available on the Texas attorney general’s website, including the “Be the One” video.
The Department of Homeland Security has more information about human trafficking, including indicators and how to get help. To report suspected human trafficking, people can call 1-866-347-2423 and to get help from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, call 1-88-373-788 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).
Many other agencies, even those not typically associated with law enforcement, have gotten involved. The Texas Department of Transportation will be holding a training event for its employees and contractors in Austin on Wednesday on how to recognize human trafficking.
Sex trafficking awareness meetings
Several sex trafficking awareness meetings have taken place in Killeen in the past year, including two last weekend at Killeen churches. Another is set for Tuesday in Harker Heights.
Organizers for this week’s meeting are trying to raise awareness about human trafficking and kidnapping, and they are inviting the public to a “meeting of the minds.”
The meeting will happen at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Harker Heights Event Center, 710 Edwards Drive, Suite A, Harker Heights.
“It’s a problem that’s being recognized, and we just need to continue to work hard and stay strong,” Cruz said.