The Tennessean: Tennessee Must Fight Hard to End Human Trafficking

The Tennessean, By: Speaker Beth Harwell, August 28, 2016

Like many people lucky enough to call Tennessee home, I’ve heard about human trafficking before. But it’s entirely different to see it firsthand, right here in our state.

I had the chance recently to see “Operation Someone Like Me,” spearheaded by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, from the inside. It is complex, lifesaving, incredible work. As a legislator, combating human trafficking is something we often discuss, but seeing it firsthand absolutely cemented my belief that we must continue working to implement policies that will assist our law enforcement throughout the state in these operations.

It is incredibly sad — even frustrating — that this kind of thing happens every day in our state. In fact, while I was there, I watched as a man was arrested for trying to buy sex with a minor. He was one of many. As a woman, a legislator, a Tennessean and a mother, it breaks my heart. Too often, men take advantage of our girls and our young women who’ve been dealt the most difficult of hands. There’s a misconception that this is just a business transaction between consenting adults. But that is not what I saw, and that is not what is happening.

We are better than this as a state. And it’s time to demand that it has to stop, in Tennessee and beyond.

The statistics are heartbreaking, and prove that this crime is demand-driven. “Operation Someone Like Me” stings have been conducted across the state — in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Jackson, Clarksville, Brentwood and Nashville. All operations resulted in arrests, and in many cases, identified missing and endangered juveniles who were being commercially exploited, and other potential victims of trafficking. This is why it is important to arrest and charge those who contribute to this crime.

Seeing this particular operation shocked me, but I was so impressed with our law enforcement. The TBI has partnered with local enforcement and other agencies and nonprofits to tackle this problem. In addition, End Slavery Tennessee works with these agencies and the community at large to raise awareness about this issue and provide long-term, comprehensive, specialized services.

This is a perfect example of a public-private partnership that attacks a problem from multiple angles. Under TBI Director Mark Gwyn’s leadership, the agency works every day to train and equip law enforcement officers, arrest offenders and rescue victims. We are leading the nation as a state in our response to trafficking, but I’ve seen just how much work there is left to do.

This is an issue that the Tennessee General Assembly will continue to address. These victims deserve our full support, and our law enforcement must have the tools to conduct operations like these and prosecute traffickers to the fullest extent of the law. This is a movement that is gaining momentum in its effort to insist it ends right here, right now.

If you suspect a trafficking crime is occurring, you can report or get help by calling the Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-855-55-TNHTH. In cases of an immediate emergency, contact your local police department or emergency number.

Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, is speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.