Polk County Human Trafficking Investigation Leads to Mass Arrests
In February of 2023, Polk County Sherriff Grady Judd announced that his office had arrested 213 people for prostitution, solicitation, and human trafficking charges. This ended up being the largest and most successful human trafficking investigation ever.
The Undercover Operation
The week-long sting investigation was called “Operation Traffic Stop.” It involved multiple agencies, including 15 different police departments, State Attorney Brian Haas of the 10th Judicial Circuit, members of Florida’s Department of Children and Families, and several social services organizations devoted to helping the cause. This was a massive group effort to take out a significant number of criminals in the sex trafficking world. The operation created a social media presence, offering prostitution services to anyone who would interact with their posts. They set up meetings with various people over the course of 7 days, arresting the suspects at the agreed upon location.
213 suspects were arrested for their various alleged sex trafficking crimes. Suspects included those who allegedly solicited prostitutes, offered to commit prostitution, or aided and abetted or profited from prostitution. The primary goal of this operation was less about arresting the people soliciting sex from prostitutes and more about saving women and children from the world of sex trafficking.
Who Was Arrested in the Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Sting?
Among those arrested in Polk County were a school board member and molecular biologist from California, a USF football student-athlete, a man who was pushing his girlfriend as a sex worker, and many more. Over a hundred sex workers were arrested, 24 of whom were identified as possible human trafficking victims. Fourteen of those were identified as migrants, mostly from Cuba.
Officers and officials have found that these sex trafficking operations rarely involve the kidnapping of civilians at grocery stores or on the street, which is what most people are afraid of. It is most often a result of a generational cycle of poverty and the coercion of women to perform sexual tasks as a result of blackmail, survival, or transportation debt. It is important to stay vigilant in identifying these possible situations.
How Local Organizations Are Helping
A local non-profit called Selah Freedom is working with several schools in Polk County, and in numerous other places, to educate both children and adults about what sex trafficking is, how they can spot it, and what they can do to keep themselves and their communities safe. Breanna Cole, an outreach advocate for Selah Freedom has described their efforts as “work[ing] with school children on an age-appropriate curriculum to bring awareness to this atrocity and hopefully help eradicate it by teaching these children the signs and what to look for.”