By ANABELLE GARAY Associated Press Writer © 2009 The Associated Press
Many police officers don’t realize the prostitutes they encounter at cantinas, massage parlors, truck stops or online are human trafficking victims forced into sex, advocates and law enforcement officials told a panel of Texas lawmakers Tuesday.
“Law enforcement has the perception that prostitutes are whores … We have to change this perception,” Bexar County Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Burchell, testified at a Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing in Austin.
Burchell was among law enforcement and advocates who spoke in favor a bill would form a state task force to investigate and prosecute human trafficking and train law enforcement officers to better recognize the crime.
Since human trafficking cases sometimes resemble prostitution, domestic disputes or arguments over wages, officers need to be able to ask the right questions of adults and children being coerced into labor or sex, said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who filed the bill. She said Interstates 10 and 35 make Texas a major corridor for transporting human trafficking victims.
Witnesses testified that victims include both U.S. citizens, often teenage runaways, and immigrants. Many teenagers and young women arrested as prostitutes are actually trafficking victims who have endured multiple rapes, said Sgt. Mike Barnett of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s Houston office.
“Those people don’t need to be put into the criminal justice system,” he said.
Most major Texas cities — including Waco, El Paso, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston — have coalitions of law enforcement and non-profits focusing on problem. But similar collaboration is needed statewide, said Burchell, a member of the San Antonio/Bexar County Task Force on Human Trafficking.
Catholic Charities, the Houston Fusion Center and other organizations submitted written testimony supporting the bill. No one spoke in opposition.
The Senate committee took no action on the bill, and will now turn its attention to how such a program might be funded, said Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat.
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