APD on Alert for F1 Human Trafficking
The $288 million pumped into the local economy, international star sightings and live music floating over the city skyline are some of the attractive facets of hosting the Formula One races in Austin. But Austin police are predicting a darker side to the F1 weekend.
Starting in the days leading up to the races, they say, pimps and human traffickers will camouflage themselves in the growing crowds and prey on unsuspecting victims.
“From the time that I gave my pimp that money for the very first time, I lost the ability to go where I wanted, to be who I wanted, to eat what I wanted, to drink what I wanted,” said Jessica Richardson, who was known as Joana Johnston during the four years she says she was forced into prostitution as a victim of human trafficking. “If he didn’t want me to breathe, it would stop. It is full power and full control, over everything.”
The Austin Police Department is currently working with local nonprofit agencies to prepare for an expected uptick in human trafficking during the F1 races. It’s a crime that increases anytime there’s an influx of visitors to a city.
“When there’s an increased demand for a product, there’s going to be an increase in supply, and we expect that for a lot of events, so we try to address that,” said Sgt. Keith Suitt of the APD’s Human Trafficking Unit.
Four months ago, APD met with nonprofits including Restore a Voice to plan a response to a rise in human trafficking during F1 weekend. Restore a Voice focuses on the rescue and aftercare of trafficked U.S. minors.
“We began to identify that there was no solution for the girls that might be rescued during this event, and so we just began looking at, what are the possibilities, how can we provide a place for them?” said founder Larry Megason. “How can we provide the care that they need?”
Their solution: Exodus House, a temporary shelter for trafficking victims APD may rescue during the weekend of the races. Here, in addition to new clothes, hot showers and fresh food, individuals would receive a stuffed animal and blanket. Megason calls those symbols of safety.
“If they choose to go back to their life, or somehow they end up back in their life, they’ll take those with them,” he said. “It will be a constant reminder that somebody loves for you and cares for you.”
Jessica Richardson also advises Restore a Voice on best care practices. She says that freedom from this modern form of slavery is not merely physical.
“I don’t think there’s just one instance where you know you have to get out,” Richardson said. “It’s a process. And for me, there were a couple really significant beatings that, I knew that I had to get away if I wanted to live. And I started that journey, but it doesn’t happen overnight, and freedom is not just physical. Freedom is in the heart and in the mind.”
In fact, APD says that one of the hardest parts of investigating human trafficking crimes is that victims often protect their captors.
“The interviews with these victims take numerous hours because we have to build that rapport with them,” Suitt said. “It is very true that these victims will protect their captures or controllers until the very end until we can gain their trust or until they can believe what we’re telling them, they’ve been told so many lies.”
Exodus House will set up for five days during the F1 races. It has room for 50.