ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Experts say human trafficking is a big issue in the Tampa Bay region and, many times, victims being sold for sex do not recognize they are being trafficked.
“There are a lot of victims out there. Just the recovery of one person, it makes it all worthwhile,” said St. Petersburg Police Department Major Nathaly Patterson.
Patterson supervises the department’s Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit. Last week, HEAT teamed up with Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force members for a special two-day operation.
“When the person shows up they actually think that they are on a date or meeting someone for commercial sex,” Patterson said.
She explains it all starts on social media and websites. Undercover detectives pose as customers and target online ads for prostitutes. Then arrange a time and location to meet.
“We are there to try and recover victims of human trafficking,” said Patterson.
This sting took place at a local motel.
In all, 22 people were arrested; some for outstanding warrants, others for charges including prostitution and drug possession.
“But we did recover victims of human trafficking; one person actually received services that night,” Patterson said.
Three adults were flagged as potential sex trafficking victims. Patterson says there likely were others in the group.
“A lot of the times victims don’t disclose that they are victims, and a lot of the time they don’t realize themselves that they are victims,” said Patterson. “They want to be accepted, they want love, they want some kind of family atmosphere, and sometimes it’s hard to say hey this person that’s trafficking me is not my family member, it’s not the person that loves me, it’s not the person that’s looking out for my best interests.”
The HEAT unit launched last October. Every person investigators make contact with speaks with a local social service counselor and are offered help.