Torpy at Large: Super Bowl trafficking roundups. Here’s the deal

Although commercial sexual exploitation of children is a major problem in metro Atlanta, there are things that can be done to prevent the sale of children. Researchers at Georgia State University have developed a curriculum to increase girls self-esteem and thus prevent them falling prey to sex trafficking.

Although commercial sexual exploitation of children is a major problem in metro Atlanta, there are things that can be done to prevent the sale of children. Researchers at Georgia State University have developed a curriculum to increase girls self-esteem and thus prevent them falling prey to sex trafficking.

Last week, I wrote a column challenging the contention that the Super Bowl brings thousands of sexually trafficked women and children into the host city for abuse.

The next day, a lady called me with an expletive-laden diatribe that I was all wet. "That is so (blanked) up to run anything like that," she said. "Sex trafficking does exist in Atlanta."

Another reader, who had volunteered in anti-trafficking organizations, said, “Just how many underage girls being trafficked would be enough for you to care? Would it take 20, 200 or 2,000?”

Any number is sad. Obviously.

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Normer Adams, a man I’ve known for decades and who deals with battered and abused kids, wrote: “I am glad someone had the courage to reveal the truth about this myth. I have been hearing about it for years and, yes, any child sold for sex is a tragedy, but exaggerating the extent of it harms the credibility of all child advocates. For years, it has been whispered behind the scenes by child advocates that the numbers were just not there.”

He said too much attention and too many resources are focused on the crime, but “child sex trafficking is often the result of child abuse and neglect. Attack it, and you will attack child sex trafficking.”

I also wrote that an AJC colleague years ago debunked the well-worn story that Atlanta was a hub of child sex trafficking. (Atlanta police Chief Erica Shields said this week, "That label is really unfairly applied to the city.")

The column ended by citing reports that Super Bowl cities in the past decade had vice arrests ranging from 40 to 200.

Now, Super Bowl LIII's sordid tally is in: According to the FBI, a sex-trafficking law enforcement operation in the region brought in 169 arrests during the 11 days leading up to the game.

That puts Atlanta on the high end of the scale compared to arrests in other Super Bowl cities.

The FBI said 26 “traffickers” were arrested, which outnumbers those who were allegedly being trafficked — nine adult women and nine minors.

Law enforcement people said they can’t talk about the victims, so it’s nearly impossible to ascertain their circumstances and situations.

The only other number released was 34 — the number of men arrested for allegedly trying to engage in sex acts with minors. This is a now-common sting where a creepy guy goes on the internet to line up a “date” with a girl, not a woman, and instead ends up in the arms of burly cops.

In these crimes there is no “victim” per se, just willing offenders.

“Thankfully, there’s not a victim because law enforcement is intervening,” said Eric Pauley, an FBI supervisor who heads the local trafficking task force. The repeated occurrence of such arrests “clearly demonstrates that this exists.”

Or at least that there’s a demand.

FBI sources I spoke with after the official news release said 21 of the 34 suspects arrested as alleged Johns were nabbed in a sting set up in Brookhaven — one that had gone on for months with 22 agencies involved, and that was sprung to coincide with the Super Bowl for maximum publicity impact.

If the world is watching and expecting this kind of behavior, then law enforcement must deliver. Plus, it sends a message to potential perverts.

The alleged Johns in the Brookhaven roundup were a motley crew evenly spread from black to white to brown, ranging from age 20 to 55. Their photos and job IDs debunk the storyline of high-rollers coming to town for exploitative sex. These guys were mostly local mopes working regular and low-level jobs.

This image provided by the Department of Homeland Security shows a poster that’s part of the Blue Campaign to raise public awareness of human trafficking. 

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The government’s numbers leave more than 100 arrests unaccounted for, but a quick check of local jails shows most of those will be prostitution related.

“Sex trafficking is embedded in prostitution,” said Pauley. “That’s where you find it.”

A check of DeKalb County’s jail found 28 women arrested for prostitution in the 11 days preceding the game and 12 arrests for pimping. I could find none for solicitation (being a John), other than the Brookhaven bunch.

Nineteen of the prostitution arrests in DeKalb and nine of the pimping arrests were made in Dunwoody. Seven of the alleged prostitutes were from out of state but almost all the pimps were Georgians.

Douglasville police and a Homeland Security crew rounded up 16 people. A check of the jail log shows that most were prostitutes, although there was an alleged pimp, a panderer and an alleged trafficker. All locals.

In the old days, these would be called vice roundups, but the term “human trafficking” delivers a stronger emotional punch and mobilizes activists and law enforcement agencies to jump into the fray.

Prostitution arrests, including those of girls under 18, have dropped for years. In 2014, the latest year listed by the Bureau of Justice statistics, 31,565 women overall and 581 girls under the age of 18 were arrested nationwide for prostitution. Ten years earlier, both categories were double that. (FBI stats were different — lower — but showed the same trends.)

Bradley Boyd, a Fulton County juvenile judge, said the decline in arrests for those under 18 is because law enforcement has “recognized that minors engaged in commercial sex activity are increasingly being viewed as victims, not criminals.”

But prostitution arrests overall have also dropped, so that may be a reason, too.

The agency doesn't want people to stop focusing on sex trafficking now that the Super Bowl is over.

The day after the Super Bowl, state Attorney General Chris Carr and Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols stood at the Georgia Capitol before cameras to hold a press conference on sex trafficking.

One of the advocates said that each month in Georgia, 7,200 men will pay for sex with an adolescent female. That figure — from a study a decade ago paid for by the Georgia governor’s office — has been rounded criticized as wildly overinflating the numbers. But it lives on.

Judge Boyd wrote, "Perhaps the increase in awareness and conversation, even if polluted with errors, is preferable to traffickers being able to live in oblivion out of sight and mind of the public."

I keep hearing variations of that. “If it saves just one kid …”

Meanwhile, the Super Bowl next year will be in Miami.