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Human trafficking fight has an unlikely new ally: Pinellas bus drivers

‘Eyes on the city’ now include nearly 400 operators with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

ST. PETERSBURG — Bus terminals are known to be a favorite hunting ground for human traffickers seeking young people who are on their own.

So it makes sense that bus drivers are now on the lookout for victims of trafficking, say officials with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

The bus agency recently launched an initiative dubbed “Eyes of the City” to teach its nearly 400 drivers how to identify passengers who may be victims of trafficking, child abuse or domestic violence. About 80 drivers have already completed the three-hour training course.

Florida, the third most populous state, also ranks third in the United States in human trafficking cases behind only California and Texas — the two most populous states, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The hotline received roughly 770 reports of potential trafficking in Florida in 2018.

“This is a problem in our area,” said transit authority spokeswoman Stephanie Rank. “We have boots on the ground to help our city.”

Related: Human Trafficking Is an Epidemic in Florida. Now, Florida Is Fighting Back

The training will instruct drivers to look for risk factors like young children traveling by themselves and passengers with bruises visible or who seem afraid to talk to anyone. Traffickers often have control of their victims’ identification documents and have also been known to tattoo their victims with a mark.

Drivers who spot a potential victim or trafficker would then warn the bus agency’s dispatch center and operators there would call law enforcement to intercept the bus.

The idea for the program came from Adriana Rodriguez, the agency’s risk coordinator. She said bus drivers already go over and above when the situation demands. One driver recently helped a child with disabilities who was stuck in the median while trying to cross a busy road.

Adriana Rodriguez, risk coordinator for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, came up with a new initiative designed to enlist bus drivers in the fight against human trafficking. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

A 2018 study by Polaris, a Washington, D.C., non-profit that advocates for victims, highlighted how traffickers rely on transportation to run their operation.

Bus and train stations were identified as a high activity area for trafficking activities, particularly long-distance bus services. A common tactic is for traffickers to buy a ticket for a runaway and then hold that gesture over the potential victims’ head, the study found.

But people using transit systems are often unaware that there are victims around them, Rodriguez said.

“When people talk about human trafficking, they don’t think about transportation,” she said. "I hope we can be the motivation and inspiration for other transit agencies to join us.”

Other bus agencies also have provided training. In 2018, Coach USA, which runs Mega Bus in Atlanta, launched a similar program ahead of Superbowl LIII. Large events that draw visitors are often accompanied by an increase in trafficking.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority bus shelters carry messages designed to raise awareness of human trafficking. [ Hillsborough Area Regional Transit ]

Locally, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority has no immediate plans to train its drivers but already partners with the city of Tampa on its “I am Priceless” campaign, designed to raise awareness of trafficking. It includes posters displayed on bus shelters and buses.

The Florida Dream Center in Pinellas County works with victims of trafficking. Chief executive Steve Cleveland said the Pinellas bus agency’s initiative is sorely needed because it’s easy for traffickers to blend in with passengers.

“It’s awesome that somebody is looking at public transit,” Cleveland said. “Any one can get a on a bus and take a ride and bad guys can coerce someone, talk to them and find a next victim."

Related: Human trafficking sting in Hillsborough nets more than 100 arrests

State and local lawmakers have also moved to curb trafficking in the past year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis in June signed into law a bill requiring that all hotel and motel workers receive training on how to identify and report human trafficking. It also orders state law enforcement to maintain a “sex trafficking database” of convicted buyers and sellers.

And last month, Hillsborough County commissioners created a Commission on Human Trafficking in an effort to snuff out human trafficking ahead of World Wrestling Entertainment’s WrestleMania 2020 in April and Super Bowl LV in February 2021. Both events are in Tampa.

Related: Hillsborough forms Commission on Human Trafficking