TAMPA — Weeks after a human trafficking sting netted more than 100 arrests in Hillsborough County, commissioners took a step Wednesday to eradicate forced labor, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation within its borders.
Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to create the first Hillsborough County Commission on Human Trafficking, modeled after a similar one in Pasco. The 14-member board will consist of appointees from the county commission, Sheriff’s Office, school district, aviation authority, hotel and motel association and state attorney’s office, as well as the Tampa Police, Port Authority, Visit Tampa Bay and local hospitals, religious institutions and victim advocacy groups.
The new commission is the latest in a string of efforts spearheaded by first-term Commissioner Kimberly Overman to snuff out human trafficking enterprises before Hillsborough hosts two mega events often tied to increases in such activity: Super Bowl LV in February 2021 and the World Wrestling Entertainment’s WrestleMania 2020 in April.
During this year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta, local authorities reported making 169 arrests over 11 days on human trafficking-related charges including sex trafficking, lewd and lascivious behavior and sexual acts with minors, according to the statewide Council on Human Trafficking.
“Typically, whenever you have any large-scale event like that you’re going to get people from all over the world, from all walks of life coming here – some for legitimate purposes to enjoy whatever event it is and some for not-so legitimate purposes,” Hillsborough Sheriff’s Col. James Bradford said outside Wednesday’s county commission meeting.
“I think this group is going to do a lot just by getting more of our local partners together, whether they’re from law enforcement, the social services community, or local businesses so we can all work together to spread awareness. The more eyes we have out there, the more success we’ll have.”
Advocacy groups have long named the Tampa Bay area as one of the top destinations in the nation for human trafficking, according to the sheriff’s office. Last year, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that Florida was the third highest state in the nation in numbers of calls to the emergency hotline.
Those numbers prompted Governor Ron DeSantis to pass new legislation in June requiring that all hotel and motel workers receive training on how to identify and report human trafficking activity. The sweeping new law also requires state law enforcement to maintain a “sex trafficking database” of convicted buyers and sellers. Names stay in the database for five years on a first offense, the law says. If there’s a second human trafficking conviction, an individual will be permanently listed in the database.
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The commission is meant to serve as an umbrella organization for the many anti-human trafficking efforts already established in Hillsborough County. Overman said the group’s goal will be to promote public awareness and sponsor educational programs at local schools, hotels, businesses and summer camps that teach the public how to recognize indicators that someone may be a victim.
The group will also advocate for state and federal support to aid rescued victims, Overman said.
“Part of the reason why we need a commission is so we have more folks at the table,” she said.