Columbia police officers attend training to prevent human trafficking

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 | 7:37 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Three Columbia police officers spent Tuesday at a training session to learn how to identify human trafficking crimes, taking the department's number of trained officers from one to four.

Lieutenant Eric Hughes, Sergeant Jeremiah Hunter and Detective Clint Nickelson attended the training session, hosted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Missouri, at the Jefferson City Police Department training center.

At the session, the officers learned the history of human trafficking, problems these crimes can create, how to recognize these types of situations and how the community can help the Columbia Police Department's Street Crimes Unit, Hughes said.

"Most of these investigations start from anonymous tips," he said. "We encourage the public to use Crime Stoppers and resources like Crime Stoppers to let us know when a crime is occurring."

The Columbia Police Department is part of the task force for the Western District of Missouri's Human Trafficking Rescue Project, which was created in 2006 to combat the industry in Missouri.

Nanette Ward, co-chair of the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition, also attended the training and said it was thorough and gave a good picture of what the Western District has done to fight human trafficking.

"Most importantly, they actually went over several human trafficking cases, and it was really helpful to learn from cases that have been prosecuted here in Missouri," Ward said. "It let us see what forms trafficking takes, the outcomes, what law enforcement is doing and the impact of these horrible crimes on the victims."

In Columbia, human trafficking crimes were recently assigned to the Street Crimes Unit, which is under the Criminal Investigations Division of the Police Department.

Officer Tim Thomason was previously working with human trafficking crimes for the Police Department but transitioned to a new role with different responsibilities after the department underwent reorganization because of a number of retirements and promotions.

The Criminal Investigations Division decided it needed an adequate number of trained officers looking at human trafficking in Columbia, Hughes said.

Since 2008, when the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition was formed, 18 cases of human trafficking have been reported in Central Missouri and 12 of those resulted in an investigation, according an article in Vox magazine in 2010.

"We want to take a stronger stance against human trafficking," said Hughes, who is in charge of the Criminal Investigations Division. "These types of crimes have a human element that can impact people more than other crimes."

Having four trained officers in the department, including Thomason, can help them brainstorm and think through these crimes as well as attack them head-on, Hughes said.

"Other crimes disrupt your day, but these types of crimes disrupt your life," he said.

Supervising editor is Allie Hinga.

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