RACINE — Human trafficking has been on the forefront of many police officers’ minds, not only around the country but internationally, and the Racine Police Department is no different. Local advocates and the Racine police have been working together for years to stamp out human trafficking in the Racine area.
And with the launch of the Fight for I-94, an anti-human trafficking campaign, over Memorial Day weekend, an even heavier emphasis was placed on tackling the issue of human trafficking throughout Southeast Wisconsin.
“We are getting the word out,” said Karri Hemmig, the founder and executive director of Fight to End Exploitation, a local anti-trafficking group and a member of the Racine Police Human Trafficking Task Force. “Billboards at I-94 and KR and Highway 20 will be up through Aug. 20.”
The relationship between Hemmig’s organization and the Racine Police Department is not a new one. The Racine Police Department’s Human Trafficking Task Force, which was formed in 2013, includes Deputy Chief Todd Schulz, who heads the investigative division of the Racine Police Department; Neal Lofy, the force’s lead investigator and president of the Fight to End Exploitation; and Hemmig, who serves as the task force’s victim advocate.
“We felt this (human trafficking) was a big enough problem that we wanted to bring other resources to play,” Schulz said. “Our goal from the start was to make this a rescue operation for the woman ... whether it’s labor or sex trafficking, we were going to focus on going after the people that profit and manipulate these victims.”
The task force also partners with the Dominican Sisters, who have provided strong community leadership against human trafficking in the past, and various other community organizations to stem human trafficking from multiple angles in the area.
Since its inception, the task force has participated in 10 to 12 operations and rescued nearly 200 human trafficking victims locally since late 2013.
A different approach
The task force has a unique model and uses a victim-centered approach. The decision to go that route was made after Lofy and Schulz were involved in a three-day local operation which focused on ticketing women being recovered. Lofy was assigned to interview the women and then ticket them.
After writing one ticket, one of the women said to him: “You know how I’m going to earn money to pay this ticket, right?” Ticketing the woman didn’t feel right to Lofy. He wanted to take an approach that would solve the problem, not exacerbate it.
“The victim is the focus of the investigation,” Lofy said. “Everything is built around them. We don’t want that victim revictimized. We want that victim to feel renewed, rehabilitated and be reintegrated back into society as an integral part of society.”
The force also maintains relationships with recovered victims, making phone calls to them, checking up on them and bringing in human trafficking survivors who have reintegrated into society after trafficking. This approach makes Hemmig, the task force’s victim advocate, necessary and important in the operation.
“That’s really what our focus is,” Lofy said. “We decided as a police department when we did these operations or did victim recovery, we needed a victim advocate there.”
Hemmig speaks with survivors, schedules quarterly meetings and assists with marketing events that raise awareness in human trafficking.
“Racine Police Department and their multijurisdictional task force members really understand the complex approach to this crime,” Hemmig said. “They understand the important role advocates bring to recovery and truly treat us as partners in the fight against trafficking.”
“We have to break through the bonds and the trauma that were inflicted on the victim by their trafficker, and the only way we can do that is show them that we really care,” Lofy said. “The burden is very large on law enforcement to begin with, and when you have someone there with us to work with the victims, it takes some pressure off of us and it’s a non-law-enforcement person, which is very comforting.”
“She (Hemmig) gave us a whole different avenue to pursue, that I don’t think we would have arrived at on our own,” Racine Police Chief Art Howell said.
“I believe that the positive encounters that victims have with our local law enforcement is critical to strengthening a trust to reach out to law enforcement when help is needed in the future,” Hemmig said.
And while this isn’t just a locally occurring issue, local authorities are taking the proper measures to ensure that they are able to stem the tide of trafficking before the problem gets worse.
“It’s not just a Racine problem,” Howell said. “It’s an international issue, and we just decided that we were going to aggressively deal with it through the networks that we have. With our volunteer staff and others, most notably the Dominican Sisters, we just have this really unique consortium to address it.”