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"Rescued" Trafficking Victims In Ohio Often Arrested As Well

Leila Goldstein

Earlier this month the Ohio Attorney General’s office announced the results of Operation Ohio Knows. It was a sting operation that targeted people buying and selling sex and resulted in over 200 arrests. The AG’s office says that these stings help law enforcement rescue human trafficking victims. But, as Leila Goldstein of member station WYSO reports, the people called “victims” in press releases often end up with criminal records.

Body cam footage from one of the Ohio Attorney General’s human trafficking stings this year shows police encounter a woman soliciting sex who is a possible sex trafficking victim. She says there’s a man who she’s giving money to who might hurt her in the future. In the video, the woman is handcuffed, and an officer is directing her to get into a police car. 

The woman asks to wipe her nose. 

Krystal: "Could you wipe my nose maybe?"

The officer says get in the car. You can do it later.

Officer 1 "Get in the car, you can do it later."

[sound of spitting]

Officer 2: "Hey!"

She spits, hitting two officers with saliva. 

Officer 2: "I think I have a spit hood in my bag."

One officer takes out a spit hood. 

Officer 2: "Yeah, she gets to earn this."

She gets to earn this, the officer says as he prepares the spit hood for her head. 

The woman was later found guilty of soliciting and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.

But in the press release announcing the sting, there’s no mention of victims being arrested, just that they were identified and offered services.  

In fact, since 2020 the AG’s office has claimed that law enforcement rescued or identified 175 human trafficking victims through sting operations. 

But is the AG’s office rescuing trafficking victims or busting sex workers? 

During a sting - with all the fear and distrust - it can be difficult for police to figure out whether someone is being coerced into sex work.

That’s according to Sergeant James Mackey, the assistant director of the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force. 

"The actual crime of human trafficking is hard to identify just from a two minute conversation... This is something that's long term…"

WYSO reviewed over 100 police reports from the AG’s human trafficking stings from the past two years. 

The majority of the reports did not include evidence that the person arrested was a trafficking victim. Some reports said the person explicitly told police they were not in danger and that nobody was taking money from them.

And police departments often used vague language when responding to WYSO’s questions about the identified victims - referring to them as “potential” victims or “suspected” victims.

Of the cases WYSO verified with police, more than 80 percent of people the AG’s office called victims ended up arrested or charged. 

Krystal Gibson was one of the people arrested this year that the AG’s office claims was rescued. She says she told police she was not being trafficked. At the time, she was in a sober living program and had decided to do sex work to buy her kids Christmas presents. 

"I have a license suspension with the BMV, was to be able to make a couple few hundred payments on that. I was able to pay car insurance. I was just able to do the things that I wanted to do." 

Then, a month after the holidays, someone responds to one of her ads. She meets him in a hotel room. The man lays down the money and goes into the bathroom. 

"As soon as he went in the bathroom, the door flung open. The cops came in and they, like, told me to put my hands behind my back. And I'm standing there naked, I’m like can I put my clothes on. They’re like yeah you can put your clothes on."

And, just a month later, she’s arrested again in another sting. 

That puts her over the edge. 

She says her sober-living program finds out and tells her that in order to stay, she’ll have to be under strict restrictions. 

She quits the program and goes back to using drugs, she says.

"The next couple of months is rough, living on the streets… Every day, all day. From the time I wake up to three days later when I'm still up, that's all I'm doing is, is prostituting. I'm prostituting and getting high and drinking."

The AG’s office may claim that Gibson was rescued but that’s not how it feels to her. 

"I didn't need rescued at the time... I wasn't being human trafficked. I was basically soliciting for money to support myself because of my criminal background. I’m not able to get a decent job. So, and now they've added to my criminal record."

Gibson says she’s taking it one day at a time, trying to stay sober. 

But for her, and others, rescue in Ohio may actually mean handcuffs, spit hoods, court dates or jail time.

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