Using Wisconsin roadways to crack down on human trafficking

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- Attorney General Brad Schimel is announcing a new initiative to combat human trafficking on Wisconsin roadways. Local officials say more attention is needed on the issue, as reported cases are seen throughout the state.

State officials say human trafficking is a huge problem and cases have been reported in every Wisconsin county. The Department of Justice is teaming up with the Wisconsin State Patrol, focusing on roadways as a new strategy to crack down.

"If you think it’s not happening in your area, you're wrong," said Lieutenant Travis Wanless.

Lt. Wanless says the new initiative is aimed at disrupting traffickers and identifying victims sooner. “The more we educate our officers, the more they're aware of it so when we make our traffic stops they know what to look for," he said. Wisconsin State Patrol officers made more than 200,000 traffic stops last year, making this strategy a big help in fighting human trafficking.

Officials say human trafficking is not just an issue in big cities. It’s also a problem locally including in rural areas with criminals using highways to transport their victims.

"A lot of these sex traffickers are mobile, they're moving around from community to community to avoid detection and state patrol plays an important role with that. We come into contact with a lot of the motoring public. We can stop, do some interviews, and hopefully detect it before anyone else gets hurt," said Lt. Wanless.

Fierce Freedom in Eau Claire works to raise awareness about human trafficking and says this initiative is much needed. "We have partnered with the DOJ in the past and we're really grateful for their attention to this," said Cat Jacoby, Public Relations and Program Coordinator.

Jacoby says there are many ways traffickers lure victims but the process often involves transport of some sort. She said focusing on roadways and highways is an effective strategy for putting an end to trafficking.

She hopes continued awareness sheds light on the issue. "It so important that we're addressing the demand side of it because if there was no demand, this would go away,” she said.

Jacoby adds that trafficking is a very profitable operation and will take a lot of effort across law makers, law enforcement, organizations, and communities to stop it. “I think it’s time that we really see these women and men who are victims as such and we really are focused on criminalizing the buyers and the traffickers," she said.

The DOJ says the anti-trafficking initiative also includes public awareness outreach. In October, the state's Human Trafficking Bureau is providing specialized training for officers who patrol state highways.