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St. Petersburg police major is ‘unsung hero’ of human trafficking victims

Police Major Nathaly Patterson coordinates the Tampa Bay area effort to arrest traffickers.
Maj. Nathaly Patterson works to save trafficking victims from a life of misery .
Maj. Nathaly Patterson works to save trafficking victims from a life of misery . [ (Photo courtesy of St. Petersburg Police Department) ]
Published Mar. 26|Updated May 21

Major Nathaly Patterson of the St. Petersburg Police Department is coordinator of the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force, a combined effort of 26 area police and federal agencies, including the FBI and Homeland Security, to fight human sex and labor trafficking in the region.

Patterson, a 29-year veteran of the department, received the “Unsung Hero” award in 2021 from Hands Across the Bay for her work on the task force.

“The Human Trafficking Task Force is very important to me,’’ she said. “I know a lot of people like to hear big numbers, that we’ve rescued this many people or we’ve saved this number of people, but I’d like the readers to know if you save one person… you’ve saved them from a life of being sold and circulated to individuals. So one life matters.”

Patterson, 59, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the human trafficking problem in the region.

How big is the human trafficking problem in Florida?

Florida is listed as number three (in the nation) in reference to the issues related to human trafficking.

How do people become victims of human trafficking?

Anyone, no matter their age, nationality, race, religion, socio-economic status can become a victim of human trafficking. A lot the victims have a history of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, some of them in foster care or in the juvenile justice system. Some of the victims do have issues with substance abuse and have mental health issues. We do have some victims that are undocumented. So it kind of depends where you are. There are a lot of victims of human trafficking that are runaways or homeless people.

Who are the traffickers?

Years ago, people would stereotype a trafficker as what you would see as a pimp – the big hat, the flashy suit, the platform shoes – but now a trafficker can be anybody. It can be your next-door neighbor. It can be your family member. It can be anyone that’s in the public that has access to someone that’s vulnerable. Anyone can be a trafficker; there’s no real stereotype of who a trafficker could or would be. … You could live next door to someone that’s trafficking someone. You could live in a household with a relative that’s trafficking a person that they’re related to.

What’s predominant, sex or labor trafficking?

What we’ve seen predominately here in the city has been sex trafficking.

Are most of the victims runaways?

We’ve had situations where girls had run away, and they’ve been trafficked by other persons. We’ve had victims of domestic violence, where it’s been brought to light. We’ve had females that have been working on the street and we’ve done operations and they’ve disclosed that information … There are a lot of ways in which you would get that information. We’ve had tips that have come in… where we’ve gone out and contacted victims as well.

What signs, if any, do victims of trafficking display?

I think that the average citizen can look for signs that might indicate that somebody is a victim of human trafficking. If the person appears to be scared or nervous. They may not make eye contact when you’re talking to them. They don’t have any idea about the environment or where they are. There’s typically somebody that would be with the victim and that person may be kind of controlling their movements and what they’re doing. They may have a lot of keys on them, hotel keys, or those cards that you put into the door. Sometimes victims do have injuries that would indicate some form of abuse. They may not have ID. They may not have a cell phone – and everybody has a cell phone – and not be allowed to leave an area that they are in with someone else. Those are some indications. if you go into a residence and you walk in and see that there are knobs off doors. You go into a bedroom and there are pallets on the floor. … You see things in a home that you would not normally see. How you would arrange a bedroom. You see clothing that would be indicative of somebody working in there, things of that nature.

How many arrests has the task force made?

If you’re looking for the number of arrests that have been made since the inception of the task force (January, 2020), we’ve had over 286 trafficking investigations that we’ve conducted and over 150 arrests. We’ve had 190 victims identified, some as young as 13 years of age. ...

If you’re looking for the stats that we have for 2021, and it’s not including the last quarter stats, we have 129 new investigations and 100 arrests, and then 75 victims identified.

Do victims recognize that they’re being trafficked?

A lot of the victims don’t recognize that they are victims of human trafficking. Sometimes when you are involved in a relationship with a trafficker, they are taking care of you, they may be providing clothing for you, they’re providing a shelter for you. Other times you’re in a situation where you don’t feel comfortable to leave because the trafficker may have made threats to you. The trafficker may hold documents that you would need. They may have you in a location where you can’t leave and you don’t know where to look for services. The trafficker may make threats to family members. So, there are a lot of factors that weigh into victims not leaving or identifying as victims of sex trafficking or labor trafficking.

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Is the human trafficking problem getting worse?

I feel like our numbers are increasing. I don’t think it’s declining. We have more agencies and more NGOs (non-government organizations that help victims) interested in working the issue of human trafficking. I feel like in the last few years it has really been brought to the forefront and people are paying more attention to human trafficking. Is it becoming worse? I don’t know. Or is it that it’s now in everybody’s face?

To report suspected human trafficking call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888.

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