In a perfect world, law enforcement around the world would all collectively understand, what human trafficking looks like in their communities and/or how it is happening. We know it’s not a perfect world, but regarding this issue, we can get there!

Last time I talked about the common mindset that people being prostituted was a choice, a profession that they chose to do. I hope I was able to blow the lid off of that and share with you how it finally made sense when I really looked closer at the issue and dissected that statement.

Now I want to talk about what it looks like when a law enforcement agency as a whole, is enlightened to the real meaning of prostitution and understands the root cause. Police officers are commonly used as society’s one stop shopping to solve a problem for them. You can dial three simple numbers and someone will respond to help you with a problem. And let me tell you those problems are diverse! From the usual violence, disputes, traffic crashes to a snake in their house. When we respond, we are expected to solve the problem, problems that sometimes have been building up for years. But what we often times do, is show up and put a Band-Aid on the problem until the next time they call. Cops aren’t trained or equipped to deal with all of societies ailments, yet here we are.

For the first time in my career, I started to see a problem in our community become solved. How that happened was our agency I worked for, the Sarasota Police Department, became enlightened, educated and trained to understand a problem we were dealing with for years.

I won’t give credit to any one person because it was as if the solution was dropped in pieces in different people’s laps to run with it. When they all came together, each one brought something to the table that basically put the puzzle together and started a prostitution diversion program that is working in our community.

It started with education. Changing the mindset of the police officers. For years, we were trying to solve a problem the community complained often about; people walking up and down major business thoroughfares selling themselves for sex. Prostitution is on the Florida State Statutes as a vice crime and we had laws to deal with it. Operation after operation was conducted to deal with it and we were trying to “arrest our way” out of the problem. I will credit Captain Ledwith for that analogy. And believe me, we were good at it. We would conduct lawful, ethical stings and arrest several women for selling themselves by using the “john” as the witness. They were cut loose and the prostitute was sent to jail with their picture published in the paper to let the community know we were listening to their complaints and doing something about it. However, the problem never went away. A couple of days later, they were back and the cycle continued.

So once Selah Freedom came knocking on our door and not just knocking, insisting on us hearing what they had to say, something started to change.

We also had a new Chief in town who was eager to get to know her community and challenge us to look at an issue with a different “lens”. So our journey began and TYLA was born. “Turn Your Life Around” is a prostitution diversion program we started with Selah Freedom, the State Attorney’s Office and First Step. Other partners have since joined on to include our judicial system who has dedicated a special court docket dedicated to the TYLA survivors of sex trafficking

Once our entire agency was trained on human trafficking and understood what the root cause was, we simply changed our operations to be victim centered. What does that mean? That means we no longer believed our prostituted person was out there by choice.

We were willing to understand that forces beyond their control starting many years prior allowed them to end up where they were. Our operations now centered on the real problem; the “johns”, “pimps” and even the hotels in the area that were contributing to the problem. It is really the sale of humans and we had to go after the demand.

No longer are the prostituted person’s picture put in the paper. Talk about revictimizing the victim! They are offered services, some take it, some don’t. Efforts are put on making it very uncomfortable for someone to come into the City of Sarasota to buy a human for sex. And this program has expanded into Manatee County as well. Kudos to our Chief of Police, Chief DiPino; our State Attorney, Sarasota County Sheriff, Chief of Police in Bradenton and the Sheriff of Manatee County as well, because they all recognize this for what it really is.

The results? They are awesome!! I won’t bore you with numbers, I will just tell you the statistics are great. Visually, you can see a difference and when I know of a woman who has walked the streets of Sarasota for 11 years and has been “out of the life” for almost four years now, that is success.

See?! We can try to be perfect. Officers who are trauma informed understand that a victim is going to behave in a way or maybe not behave in a way you would expect due to their trauma. And when we understand that, we don’t mistake their responses or inconsistencies as being untruthful. Being trauma informed means we can understand more of the picture and investigate something instead of dismissing it right off the bat as a false report.

- Former Captain Cori Stannish (now retired), Sarasota Police Department

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