In 2015, Fort Collins Police Services officers Laura Knudsen and Annie Hill analyzed two years of police calls to local hotels, and found that many high-priority calls had ties to prostitution.
Since then, the department has conducted 10 sex trafficking sting operations and arrested 127 men in connection with sex crimes.
Knudsen and officer Rob Knab discussed how the department has been combating sex trafficking at the third annual Northern Colorado Human Trafficking Symposium at Colorado State University on Thursday.
The symposium brought together researchers, law enforcement, nonprofit workers and community members to discuss the issue of human trafficking in Northern Colorado and how to address it. Human trafficking is defined by the Department of Homeland Security as using force, fraud or coercion to obtain a type of labor or a commercial sex act from someone.
Many people do not realize that human trafficking is a problem in Fort Collins, Knab said. He jokingly referred to the city as “Mayberry,” the idyllic fictional town of “The Andy Griffith Show.” But despite its bucolic exterior, the city is considered a hub for human trafficking in the Northern Colorado region, he said.
After the 2015 analysis, Knab said the department decided to conduct a sting operation. Officers created a fake ad for someone selling sexual services on the now shuttered website backpage, and connected it to a Google voice number. Almost as soon as the ad was live, the number started getting texts, and continued almost nonstop for the 24 hours they kept the ad up, he said.
The department has continued to conduct sting operations since then, he said, arresting an average of 12 men per sting. The department has launched community efforts to combat sex trafficking, including training hotel workers, medical professionals and probation officers on how to spot warning signs of trafficking.
The department has also cracked down on massage parlors selling sexual services, Knudsen said.
The majority of women being trafficked in parlors are immigrant women from China or Korea, she said. They usually do not speak English and may not even know that prostitution is illegal in the U.S. They frequently live in the parlors and their earnings or visa documents are kept by their traffickers to prevent them from leaving, she said.
So far, the department has shut down eight parlors in Fort Collins, Knudsen said. One parlor was connected to a similar operation in Longmont that was also shut down.
On Wednesday, the department announced the arrests of two people in connection to a sex trafficking operation in two Fort Collins massage parlors.
Brian Hardouin, a deputy district attorney in the 8th Judicial District’s special victims unit, discussed sex crimes from a prosecutor’s perspective.
Hardouin is a CSU alum, where he studied mechanical engineering.
“I spent four years here learning about how amazing technology is,” he said. When he got to the DA’s office, he saw the dark side of technology. The internet is increasingly being used by traffickers to groom victims, many of them children and teenagers.
While Colorado has introduced laws making it easier to prosecute trafficking over the past several years, it hasn’t kept up with how to prosecute internet crimes, he said.
“When it comes to the law, we’re always 10 to 15 years behind the curve,” he said.
Knab encouraged people to contact law enforcement if they think they witness a human trafficking situation. To report suspected human trafficking to federal law enforcement, call 1-866-347-2423. To get help from the national human trafficking hotline, call 1-888-373-7888.