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Hitting a moving target

Durham unit hunting human traffickers grows as new officer takes the helm

The Durham Regional Police continues to battle against human traffickers in Durham Region. Proximity to the Highway 401 corridor makes the motels and hotels along this highway in Durham common places for these criminals. A unit of dedicated officers works daily to investigate these cases. (Image courtesy of DRPS)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

This may come as a surprise.

Some of the most vibrant and bustling locations in our community can be lurking with so much darkness.

The facts around human trafficking even come as a shock to our police officers sometimes.

Det./Sgt. Ryan Connolly, recently named head of the Durham Regional Police Human Trafficking Unit, says that before he took over, there was a lot he was unaware of.

“Since I’ve been here, it’s shocking, but it’s the truth, in the last several months, some of these individuals involved in human trafficking, we’ve had them at the Oshawa Centre approaching young girls,” he says. “It’s happening right in our public places, right here within our communities.”

Putting resources to a growing problem

The threat of human trafficking has been a persistent one in Durham Region for some time. With the Highway 401 corridor bisecting the region, the crime continues to surge along the roadway like a virus through a vein, infecting the motels and hotels that dot the main thoroughfare.

In 2017, the DRPS Human Trafficking Unit investigated 27 human trafficking cases, which resulted in a total of 210 charges being laid.

“Being along the Highway 401 corridor does play a role in us seeing an increased level in these incidents, there’s no question about that,” Connolly says.

Along with the cases centred here in Durham Region, the unit also partnered with other services on 11 cases throughout the GTA.

“A lot of these pimps, they’re very transient, they transport their victims all over the place. So we’re aware of that obviously, as are the human trafficking units of the other services, and that’s why it’s imperative that we do share information and we meet regularly and have open dialogue,” Connolly says. “So our unit works very closely with the York Regional Police, Toronto police, Peel police, OPP, and we support the services that are east of us, including Port Hope and Cobourg. We give them our expertise and assist them in incidents they may have and their investigations.”

Finding a moving target

A lot of the time, human traffickers will use a variety of methods to attract and groom their potential victims.

To build trust, the trafficker will shower the victim with compliments, often professing love, and will often buy them expensive gifts. Girls as young as 14 fall victim to these predators.

After the grooming stage, comes isolation. The trafficker will work to separate the victim from their family and friends, monitoring their phone calls and texts, limiting their access and communication with friends and family members and even removing them from social media, all in an attempt to “own” the person.

These efforts are not only done in person, in public places, but also in the virtual world and over social media.

“We do have resources at our disposal and investigative techniques that we utilize as investigators to assist us with that,” Connolly explains. “We do have the capability to reach out and gain assistance from other units in our police service, including our e-crimes unit, surveillance unit, whatever it may be.

“These guys reach out on social media and they’re very manipulative and they’ll do whatever they have to do to find that insecurity, or that need that a young girl looks for, and they’ll hone in on that and they will manipulate the young girl. The next thing you know, it starts, and it’s scary once it starts, it really is,” he says.

With that said, Connolly explains that the Human Trafficking Unit itself is made up of officers with an array of investigative backgrounds that can bring a lot of tools to the table. Connolly himself, along with the Human Trafficking Unit, also oversees the fraud and the robbery unit.

“Many times a lot of the offenders involved in human trafficking, they’re also involved in drug trafficking, fraud offences, gun possession incidents, robberies, things like that,” Connolly says. “So we have investigators in our unit that are former robbery investigators, drug unit investigators, gun and gang unit investigators. So it’s our goal not only to target these individuals for any human trafficking offences, but also any other offences that they may be committing as well.”

However, there’s always the question of whether more resources are needed to tackle the insidious problem.

Spreading the word

February 22 marked Human Trafficking Awareness day. A day to spread the word about human trafficking and educating young woman about those who are looking to take advantage of them.

In 2014, the DRPS unit was created not only to have officers focused on dealing directly with the investigation and capture of those committing the atrocious offences, but also to work toward this exact goal of educating and bringing awareness to the growing issue.

And over the last three years, that education mandate has continued to grow. In 2017, DRPS officers conducted 55 public presentations and spoke with more than 2,600 Grade 9 girls across the region about the dangers and the warning signs of human trafficking.

The DRPS is also part of the Durham Region Human Trafficking Coalition, a group of approximately 30 agencies from across Durham that work together to help those impacted by human trafficking.

“Out of those 30 agencies, a lot of them are very much involved with victim support, both emotional, financial. We’re the only group of that whole coalition who can do that enforcement piece and that’s what we’re focusing on and we want to really focus on moving forward,” Connolly says. “At the end of the day that’s what we’re good at, hunting these guys down and charging them and making sure they’re held accountable for their actions.”

Can we do more?

For Awareness Day, Oshawa MPP Jennifer French took the opportunity inside the walls of Queen’s Park to bring the issue to the forefront, calling on the province to take action.

“Human trafficking is everywhere, predatory gangs and groups target young girls. They will prey on the vulnerable, which can mean the young, the isolated, the addicted, or the lonely,” she said in the legislature, suggesting that the province should develop a motel/hotel strategy so that service workers could be trained to identify the warning signs that human trafficking is taking place. “We haven’t caught on or caught up to what’s going on, our courts haven’t figured it out and are tremendously adversarial. We don’t focus in on trafficking and aren’t funding necessary initiatives to combat ‘the game’ or support survivors.”

In speaking with The Oshawa Express, French said that “without a doubt” the province is not putting enough resources towards the problem.

“One thing that I have really understood from this is that it is a moving target. That as insidious and as awful as you can imagine human trafficking is, it is that, and different,” French says. “Every story that you hear about is one face of it, or is one specific and horrible way that people are taking advantage of others. As many ways as there are to exploit people, we need that many resources.”

French says that any approach needs to be wide reaching, and needs to raise the level of community awareness.

It’s something Connolly also agrees with. While noting that he would never say no to more officers, he say he’s able to boost the force of his unit when required.

“I’m fortunate to have that capability so any time we do find ourselves in a situation where we do need more, I can always reach out and find those resources and because of the importance of the investigations and the victims involved, I never have an issue obtaining more resources,” Connolly says.

Helping the victims

As part of the Durham Region Human Trafficking Coalition, Connolly notes that the majority of their efforts are surrounding the victims and ensuring they get the help they require.

“You see the victimization of these females, and you see the very traumatic experience they go through and the effect that it has on them,” he says. “These are victims that have been through some of the most horrific experiences you can imagine and when we lay human trafficking charges, they’re required to come to court and that’s a very difficult process.”

“We have many of these great, great social services that are right at our disposal and they’re always there to help us, and that’s why it’s so important to work together,” Connolly says. “Moving forward we have to continue to do that and it always centres around the victim. How do we support the victim? And as long as we focus on that, it allows us to do our job and it allows the other agencies to come in and do what they do best.”

Along with the DRPS, those organizations include: the Children’s Aid Society, Rape Crisis Centre, AIDS Committee of Durham, John Howard Society, Bethesda House, and Safe Hope Home.

The DRPS urges anyone who may be involved in a similar situation, or who knows of someone involved to come forward to police. DRPS takes each case seriously and will conduct a thorough investigation as well as protect the victims of these crimes.

In Durham Region, the police have set up a human trafficking hotline at 1-888-579-1520 ext. 4888. The public is encouraged to call this line with any information related to human trafficking.