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NYPD Launches Crackdown on Sex Trafficking

 First Lady Chirlane McCray, left, and a trafficking survivor named Carmen, right, promoted the NYPD's new 24-hour hotline for reporting potential human trafficking.
First Lady Chirlane McCray, left, and a trafficking survivor named Carmen, right, promoted the NYPD's new 24-hour hotline for reporting potential human trafficking.
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DNAinfo/Danielle Tcholakian

CIVIC CENTER — The NYPD is making new efforts to go after "pimps and johns" responsible for sex trafficking, Police Commissioner James O'Neill and First Lady Chirlane McCray announced Wednesday.

The department is adding 25 detectives to the Vice squad, specifically to investigate sex trafficking, and has launched a 24-hour hotline staffed by specially trained Special Victims Division investigators, where people can call to anonymously report trafficking.

Human trafficking is "one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world," O'Neill said, and according to McCray, New York is the fourth highest state for sex trafficking.

According to Department of Homeland Security information provided by Mayor Bill de Blasio's office, the U.S. is the second highest destination for trafficked women and New York City is one of the top points of entry for trafficking victims and where many of them remain.

Thanks in part to help from the public, the NYPD investigated 175 more prostitution cases in 2016 compared to 2015, O'Neill said, for a total of 1,700 cases last year.

The NYPD's new efforts involve "altering the law enforcement mindset through training and recognition" and include a renewed focus on "more longterm investigations," O'Neill said.

"We’ve already switched much of our emphasis away from prostitutes and began to focus much more on the pimps who sell them and the johns who pay for their services," O'Neill said.

The NYPD is planning to train patrol officers to "better recognize trafficking victims during daily encounters with the public" and to conduct "more undercover operations that target johns on the streets and in hotels around the city," O'Neill said.

"A lot of the hotels around the city are historically problematic" and "facilitate prostitution," said Inspector James Klein, who heads Vice Enforcement for the police department.

"This is happening all over. There is no boundaries, no social class, no religious group. It’s a problem and that’s why we’re here, to make people aware," he said.

National experts in neurobiology, psychology and investigation will train the department's trafficking investigators in Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview, or FETI, techniques to "teach the NYPD how to interview trafficking victims in ways that help us build and collect evidence for cases without further harming them," O'Neill said.

The police department is also working "closer than ever with nonprofits in the field to make sure victims get the services they need as quickly as possible," O'Neill said, as he was joined by Lori Cohen, the director of an anti-trafficking initiative run by Sanctuary for Families, the largest provider of services for such victims in New York state.

Cohen praised the NYPD's new approach.

"By developing strategies that target those who buy and sell sex rather than those who are bought and sold, the NYPD is shutting off the economic engine that drives commercial sexual exploitation," she said.

Cohen was accompanied to the presser by a woman named Carmen, whose last name was not released for her own safety.

Carmen was kidnapped in Mexico when she was 14 and trafficked to the United States at 15 and forced into sex work, Cohen said. 

She escaped when she was 20 and "saw her trafficker sentenced at 23," Cohen said.

Cohen indicated that recent executive orders by President Donald Trump on sanctuary cities and immigration may strengthen the tactics that traffickers use to control victims.

"Traffickers use not only force or fraud to control their victims, but also fear," she said. "Fear of arrest if the victims tries to flee, fear of deportation if she tried to report her abuse to law enforcement, fear of being punished rather than helped for seeking freedom.

"Today’s announcement has a particular resonance for immigrant victims of trafficking who wish to gain their freedom," she added. "If you seek help you will not be arrested or deported. New York remains a sanctuary city."