Sex trafficking taskforces on alert in 12 Oregon counties
In an online era, fewer street walkers stroll 82nd Avenue for undisguised dealings — but authorities say the selling of coerced sex festers behind locked doors.
Now, new teams of police, prosecutors and survivor advocates are taking the fight to end sex trafficking statewide.
"These victims don't self-identify," said Amanda Swanson, who has served as the Oregon Department of Justice's first-ever human trafficking intervention coordinator for the past four years. "We need extreme public awareness."
Since Swanson took the job, the state DOJ has worked to establish sex trafficking task forces in 12 of Oregon's 36 counties, leading to the identification of hundreds of survivors and a renewed crackdown on buyers and pimps.
The multi-disciplinary groups, which often include employees from juvenile justice and child abuse prevention departments, are active in counties such as Deschutes, Douglas, Klamath, Malheur, Marion and Lane — far removed from the Portland metro area where enforcement traditionally centers.
The rise of a less policed internet means most sex buyers search online — and can find a market in even the smallest rural outposts — for dalliances that are conducted in motels, apartments and neighborhood homes.
In response, the Portland Police Bureau has exported its tactics to smaller communities across the state, teaching those police departments how to post fake online ads for sex and catch buyers unaware. Two four-day training and sting operations by PPB and local officers in Ontario and Medford in 2018 each netted dozens of arrests.
"Now we don't see it on 82nd Avenue, so people think it's gone away," said Officer Mike Gallagher, part of the bureau's team of two patrol officers, two sergeants and two detectives assigned to battle sex trafficking. "That's not the case. It's probably gotten worse."
Building a case against human traffickers is the task of a detective. But unlike murders and drug deals, where the weapon or illicit product can be secured in an evidence locker, these authorities are working with real people who may be afraid, struggling with drug addiction or who wish to simply move on and bury the past.
"These are the hardest cases to work, they're more time than a homicide," said PPB Detective Angela Hollan. "We have victims who frequently run away… their lives are in chaos."
Hollan, who has investigated both foreign-born and domestic trafficking in Portland for nearly a decade, says the bureau once had four detectives assigned to such cases, but resources were shifted. She was the only detective in the unit for more than a year.
Swanson, the state DOJ coordinator, says one enduring challenge is convincing officials that sex trafficking isn't just a big-city problem. To that end, the DOJ hosted an inaugural honors ceremony Friday, Jan. 11 — which is also National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
While accepting an award, Clackamas County prosecutor Rusty Amos joked that several sheriff deputies in his district had been "going rogue, defying orders" in order to prioritize the sex trafficking work.
"People didn't believe, or didn't think it was important," Amos said.
That's not an attitude you'll find at the very top. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum says children and young adults who are abused or neglected at home often become targets for predators, who can act as false friends before forcing them to sell their bodies.
"This is a serious problem in our state," Rosenblum said in an interview. "We need to have eyes and ears out in the community."
"Trafficking goes on everywhere."
Help is here
Help is available for victims and survivors of human trafficking. Call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888, text the hotline at 233-733 or call 911.