TAMPA — Standing in the shadow of a massive billboard, Attorney General Pam Bondi unveiled a new statewide publicity effort Friday aimed at combating human trafficking.
In a midday news conference outside Hillsborough County's Falkenburg Road Jail, the attorney general, flanked by the heads of half a dozen law enforcement agencies, detailed what she said is a scourge unlike any other in the Sunshine State.
Florida ranks third in the nation for the number of crisis hotline calls received through the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Bondi noted. And many of those responsible recruit their young victims on the Internet and social media.
"We're going to do everything in our power to put them out of business," Bondi said. "By having one conversation with a child, you can save them from a lifetime of sexual exploitation."
Specifically, Bondi said, a series of billboards and posters will soon appear along highways, on the sides of trucks and on mall displays throughout Florida, catching the public's attention with stark images and alarming facts.
"From instant message to instant nightmare," reads the header above one photo of a frightened-looking young girl, an adult hand covering her mouth. "Sex traffickers have online access. Don't let them access and recruit your kids."
To highlight the seriousness of the problem, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd both appeared with Bondi to tell of human trafficking cases in their jurisdictions.
Castor spoke of the case of Terrance Foreman and Michelle Green, who were arrested last week and accused of using the controversial classified advertising website Backpage.com to advertise a young girl for sex.
"We care about all of those that are being caught up in these terrible events," Judd said. "We will build trust. We will save lives."
In addition to the unveiling the new signs, Bondi issued a list of tips for parents, which included talking to their children about sex trafficking, restricting computer use and having kids sign a "pledge for online safety."
"Get ready to see this all over our state," Bondi said.
The event came as Bondi endures a wave of heavy criticism for having postponed an execution because it conflicted with her re-election kickoff reception.
Marshall Lee Gore, 50, was originally supposed to be put to death Sept. 10 for the 1988 murders of two women, but Bondi's office asked that it be postponed. The date was the same night that Bondi had scheduled the political fundraiser. The execution, which had already been twice rescheduled due to legal skirmishes, was reset for Oct. 1.
Bondi later apologized, acknowledging that she made a mistake in rescheduling the execution.
Before Friday's news conference, a media spokeswoman for Bondi's office gave reporters a sheet with information about human trafficking and said that the attorney general would take questions that were "on topic."