GREENVILLE — A new unit of the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office will seek to combat human trafficking in eastern North Carolina.
PCSO Detective Travis White, who will head the unit, comes from a background in narcotics, and says he is still learning about the world of human trafficking, which involves using force, fraud or coercion to hold people in forced labor or sexual servitude.
“From the cases I’ve seen, the victims can be almost anybody,” White said. “It really hits home when it’s young juveniles who run away from home, or who have had trouble and get caught up in this world. They really get pulled in by these traffickers. … The goal (of the traffickers) is to make money. It’s really modern day slavery, and it can really be in many different sets of work.”
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, North Carolina had the 11th-highest number of reported human trafficking cases nationwide in 2019, with 266 cases reported. Top venues for sex trafficking included illegal massage businesses, while agriculture was the top industry for labor trafficking.
“It’s very hard to detect in many cases,” said North Carolina Stop Human Trafficking Founder Pam Strickland. “One of the misperceptions that a lot of people have about victims of human trafficking is that they should be reaching out and asking for help. That’s not what they do, because they’ve been trained by their trafficker not to trust law enforcement or other people who might help them. So they almost never self-identify. It makes it hard, many times, to convince people that we do actually have a problem here.”
That unwillingness of many victims to come forward can sometimes make it difficult to identify human trafficking. Locally, Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Investigations Lt. Jim VanLandingham says the BCSO has only dealt with a few human trafficking cases throughout the years, and it’s a crime that can easily go unseen.
“By its very nature, it’s under-reported,” VanLandingham said. “Those who are being trafficked are probably being held in fear, or someone is holding something over their head like their family, their job, money or fear of harm or death. That’s not something we’ve seen or charged a lot in Beaufort County.”
Both White and Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance recognize that, by its nature, human trafficking often involves the transportation of people across state and county lines. For the new unit, part of the job will involve working with other agencies to address human trafficking in eastern North Carolina and being a resource for fellow officers and deputies investigating such crimes.
“It’s very important to share information with other areas of the state and country,” Dance said. “These victims are frequently moved around so they will not be able to form those bonds or relationships with people in the community. As we are able to have this unit here to deal with these particular crimes, we fully expect we would be communicating with other areas across the state and country about the patterns of certain traffickers.”
“I’m going to be meeting with a few different agencies in eastern North Carolina soon that have had these positions working for quite some time and have been successful in prosecution and getting resources to the victims,” White added. “I’m hoping I can learn from them and then do the same thing.”
To learn more about the fight against human trafficking, visit encstophumantrafficking.org or humantraffickinghotline.org. If you suspect human trafficking, tips can be reported by calling the National Human Trafficking at 1-888-373-7888, texting 233733 or live chat on the organization’s website.