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Modern-day slavery: DRPS Sting operation

Part two: the fight

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

This is the second in a four part series on human trafficking. In Part 1, The Oshawa Express introduced readers to Katie, a human trafficking survivor who agreed to share her story in order to help raise awareness about this growing crime. For Part 2, The Express travels with the DRPS Human Trafficking Unit as they go undercover on a sting operation. We dive deep into the insidious nature of human trafficking and how police are evolving their tactics and their compassion to better protect and serve the trafficked survivors.

 

The street is alive with cars grinding through traffic, people waiting for the bus, or out for an afternoon walk. A seven-storey office tower stands tall across the street, filled with workers sitting at computers, filling out documents or attending meetings, perhaps even taking a break for a late lunch.

In the hotel next door, a man is looking to buy sex.

Across the road, parked on the edge of a parking lot, behind a stand of trees, sits Acting Det. Dave Davies with the Durham Regional Police Human Trafficking Unit.

He’s leaned back in the driver’s seat, a cell phone in his lap, a radio in one hand, the cord snaking down to the console installed between the seats. A recent flurry of chatter from his other officers has just gone silent.

Something is about to happen.

This is Project Chestermere in action and the man trying to buy sex in the hotel across the road has no idea he’s about to come face to face with a undercover Durham police officer. The Oshawa Express joined the Human Trafficking unit for the sting operation to get a closer look at how the DRPS is battling the growing presence of traffickers in Durham. Chestermere marked a new milestone for DRPS, a new weapon in its arsenal against traffickers as it unleashed its first-ever John sweep. In particular, the focus is on the unsettling growth in appetite among Johns for younger and younger women.

It surprises even Davies, a 19-year veteran of the DRPS who has spent years working with the drug squad and organized crime team, and the truth of what’s happening across Durham and Ontario is sometimes hard for officers to swallow.

“It hits home,” he says while juggling discussions on his cell and replying to radio chatter. “My guys have families and kids.”

But the work of the unit, the direct impact it can have on girls coerced into the sex trade, can sometimes shine a light that nearly dispels that dark shadow.

“It’s something tangible, it seems they are doing something to help the problem,” Davies says of their work.

It’s a problem that is growing too. Between 2009 and 2016, there were 865 victims of human trafficking, according to Statistics Canada police report data, 95 per cent of whom were female. A large proportion of those women, 72 per cent, were under the age of 25, and 26 per cent were under the age of 18.

Two thirds of human trafficking offences reported to police in Canada were in Ontario.

The incessant and greedy demand for this black market sex is seen immediately at the start of the operation. Before getting into the vehicle and heading off for the hotel, Davies sat us down in a room within the belly of the downtown DRPS detachment, and beneath bright fluorescent lights, he explained what was about to happen.

Project Chestermere is already several days in, he explains, with previous sting operations in Whitby, Pickering and Peterborough. Project Chestermere also has the specific aim of targeting men looking to purchase sex from underage girls. It marks the first time that the Durham Regional Police are running such an operation with the target aimed at the Johns.

The results were staggering. In three previous nights, 10 men had been arrested for trying to purchase sex with an underage girl, resulting in 41 charges.

“At the end of the day we’re trying to protect our young children in the region,” he says. “The region is not going to tolerate this and it’s got to stop.”

The ad they will be posting for the night will appear on LeoList, a free classifieds website, the personals section of which has become the host for the virus that is human trafficking.

As Davies had said, the target for Chestermere is men looking to purchase sex with underage girls. For that reason, the DRPS needs to walk a fine line to ensure the arrests will stand up in court. In order to do that, the potential John that falls into their orbit is given several off-ramps to potentially save being arrested, charged and their name placed on the sex-offender registry if convicted.

Davies explains that the ad will be posted as an of-age woman, but when initial contact is made with an interested John, it will be explained that the girl is a little bit younger than listed in the ad. This is off-ramp number one.

“We want to give them the opportunity to say this is not okay,” Davies says.

If the opportunity is not taken, the “date” proceeds and the John is provided the address and hotel number for where the girl is said to be waiting for him. Officers tell the man to bring a drink, usually an Ice-Capp or something for the girl to drink. This time it’s a bottle of water.  It’s simply a marker to make it easier for officers in the area to identify their target when he arrives at the hotel.

When the man eventually steps into the hotel room, he’s met with the undercover DRPS officer, who is posing as a madam (female pimp). This is off-ramp number two. The madam explains once again that the girl is underage, and asks if he still wants to go through with it.

If the man agrees, as 10 men already had in the previous nights of Project Chestermere, the madam leaves to retrieve the girl. However, there is no girl, and it’s DRPS officers that return to the room.

It’s hard to say how busy the afternoon will be, but if the previous nights are any indication, it sadly won’t take long for the Johns to come out of the digital woodwork.

Davies says throughout Chestermere’s earlier nights, officers had exchanged messages with approximately 400 different Johns who responded to the ad. It takes merely seconds for the responses to start popping up after our ad is posted. The hotel is booked and it’s time to go.

When Davies pushes the car into park in the lot across the street, only the top of the hotel is visible over the trees. Radio chatter from his other officers explains that they believe a pimp is patrolling the hallways. It’s not uncommon for these men to approach undercover officers, even try and recruit them.

As messages with a John progress to the potential launch point, Davies and his men go through a final safety briefing, all of them again getting on the same page as things move forward.

Less than two hours after the fake ad was posted, a man is on his way. A 39-year-old mixed-race asian male. According to Stats Can data, 81 per cent of those accused in human trafficking cases in Canada are men.

The minutes tick by as the occasional radio chatter is punctuated by tense moments of silence. A few cars come and go from the lot. Not long after, a man approaches the front doors.

“There’s nothing in his hands,” a voice on the radio states. No water bottle, it’s not their man.

The tense silence resumes. A few minutes later, a car pulls into the back of the lot.  A man, appearing to be in his late 40s, is using a cellphone in the front seat. The man stays in the car for several minutes.

When he steps out, the officer on the radio describes a man wearing a blue sweater, black pants with mirrored sunglasses, he’s got a “quaff of weatherman hair.” He’s carrying a water bottle and something else in a white plastic bag.

This is all relayed to Davies across the road, and when the man steps through the front doors of the hotel a few minutes later all radios go silent.

It’s a tense few moments. The energy in the car is practically electric with anticipation. For those working in the field of human trafficking, working to stop men like those who just walked into the hotel, and work to repair the damage that has been done to women by them, what the DRPS are doing with Project Chestermere is exactly the right path.

“I think if they continually went after the men who are going after the young girls, then you would see some change,” says Laura Burch, the shelter services manager with Bethesda House, a women’s shelter in Durham Region that helps house and treat survivors of human trafficking. Burch says when it comes to these men, few concessions should be given.

“When you have somebody who is trying to purchase sex from somebody that they know is underage then I think the entrapment piece doesn’t really matter, because they are making a choice then with the information,” she says. “People’s wives need to know what their husbands are doing because it’s everyone. It’s doctors, it’s lawyers, it’s judges.”

The radio chatters back to life, the man has reappeared, stepping out the front door.

He puts the plastic bag in his trunk and gets back in his car.

“He had a change of heart when he got in there,” Davies says.

Others did not. In two weeks of Project Chestermere, 11 men were arrested, all within Durham Region. All of them face a combined 45 charges, including sexual exploitation, obtaining sexual services for consideration and luring a child.

For police, it’s a small dent in a problem that proves slippery and consistent across Durham. Since 2014, the DRPS Human Trafficking Unit has been putting dedicated work into disrupting the sale and movement of women for sex. Over the last four years, the need for work like Project Chestermere has only increased.

“Our focus is definitely on the person who is controlling the victim, that’s where all our energy and time goes into,” says Det./Sgt. Ryan Connolly, the head of the DRPS unit.

However, one of the things the DRPS also needs to be cognizant of is the other side of the equation. Once these pimps and Johns are off the street, what happens with the women who are left scarred and sometimes broken by their experiences in trade?

For that reason, the DRPS works in close contact with the Victims Services of Durham Region, sometimes even bringing them out on operations in order to interact with women in the sex trade. The Human Trafficking Unit is also part of a large contingent of approximately 30 different agencies from across Durham that form the Human Trafficking Coalition of Durham Region. It’s a partnership that has proved invaluable for the DRPS.

“We have to push the envelope a bit, especially in this area,” Connolly says.

Connolly has also ensured to draw expertise in his team from across different aspects of the DRPS arsenal, with officer backgrounds that include drug investigations, fraud, guns and gang investigations. It’s a laundry list of skills that can help nab traffickers for any number of the offences they may be involved in.

“We just want to make sure that as investigators we look at the big picture and we can have a diverse team with a lot of experience that is very well-versed in investigating all those different offences,” Connolly says.

The DRPS unit is also heavily involved in the education side of things, a priority identified when the unit was first created. 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.

For those in the field, this early education aspect is a key component to fighting human trafficking. At a young age, children need to be taught self-worth, empowerment, and the different levels of consent.

“There’s not enough people educating the public,” Burch says. “It needs to be talked about in schools, there needs to be a class on it or something.”

However, until these classes and lessons become commonplace, more and more people will continue to be shocked when they learn the frightening truth that human trafficking is happening right outside their doors, where they drive to work, where they shop.

For Oshawa MPP Jennifer French, the reality is staggering, and after spending an entire night with the DRPS human trafficking unit, her perspective has been changed forever. Since that time, French has advocated at Queen’s Park to raise awareness about the nature of human trafficking.

“It was a real gut check to realize that just our normal hotels, not the seedy underbelly hotels, just the normal hotels, that this is going on all-day, everyday,” she says. “I will carry the experience with me forever, and I am definitely motivated to continue, especially because this is our community.”

Durham, Ontario, regardless of the chosen area, human trafficking continues to happen here more than it does anywhere else in the province. In fact, in 2016, the rate of human trafficking offences in Ontario was one and a half times the national average.

According to Set Free Durham, an organization that looks to raise awareness about human trafficking, 41 girls have been lured into human trafficking in the last six months.

However, the DRPS is battling back. So far in 2018, the police have helped 51 victims of human trafficking, 21 of whom were under the age of 18.

But as it turns out, getting them out is only half the battle.

 

In Part 3 of this series on human trafficking The Oshawa Express returns to Katie’s story, a nightmare that continued even after the terrible events of her trip out west that were detailed in Part 1. Part 3 also examines the trauma and lingering impacts of being coerced into the sex trade, and how sometimes, the hardest battles for survivors can come long after they’ve escaped their traffickers grasp.

 

BEHIND THE WRITING

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

“My soul doesn’t know how to file all of it, it is a lot.”

Oshawa’s MPP Jennifer French said this to me when I sat down to talk with her about her experience with the DRPS Human Trafficking Unit.

My behind the scenes look at the unit’s work was still a few weeks away, and while slightly different than what French experienced, it was still an eyeopening look into what Durham officers deal with on a regular basis while trying to battle this insidious crime.

For me, it was the dichotomy that hit home the hardest.

I attempted to portray this part of the story right in the introduction. All around the hotel there were people going about their daily lives, cars driving home from work or running errands, people walking down the street, many on their cell phones, perhaps texting friends about their plans for their night or some such thing. Then right next door, an office building filled with workers going about their days. All of this going on while right behind a bit of brick and glass, a man is trying to buy sex with an underage girl.

It’s a gut punch to think about how this has been going on almost right beneath everyone’s noses, and people just don’t know, or choose not to think about it. However, with the expansion of the Internet, the proliferation of the crime has just increased right along with it.

“I think this has always been in our backyard, but it’s just easier now,” says Acting Det. Dave Davies.

While the DRPS unit does work on raising awareness about human trafficking, during the hours that I spent with them, their focus was completely on the job.

The coordination, the back and forth, and the effort of all these officers was a flurry of movement.

Along with Davies, I crossed paths, either in person or listening via radio, with a couple of other members of the unit, all of whom seemed to share the same ideals as Davies, that the priority was getting these men off the streets, and driving a stake into the growing desire for underage girls.

And the desire is there. While getting briefed at the DRPS station before heading out, the officers posted the ad for the “girl” and received responses within seconds. Seconds!

There are many words one can use to describe the men on the other end of those messages, but criminals is probably the best way.

The experience with the unit was extremely valuable in telling this second part of the series, and only illustrated for me further that there is a serious need to get the word out in a big way about this crime in Durham.