Recently, Sgt. Domenick Kaufman of the Mesa, Arizona Police Dept. was kind enough to talk to us about his work to combat sex trafficking in his state. Sgt. Kaufman goes into detail about his department’s current tactics and approaches and how organizations like Shared Hope and the Hickey Family Foundation have helped those efforts.
— Q&A —
- Can you tell me a bit about Project Blue Heat? What are its goals? Has it been successful?
Sgt. Kaufman: Approximately 3 years ago, the Mesa Police Department looked into the issue of sex trafficking (adult and child victims) in an attempt to better understand the scope of the problem in our community. Unfortunately, Mesa PD does not have a dedicated unit/squad tasked with investigating these types of cases. Therefore, we created a collaborative approach to investigating cases and running proactive stings. The personnel used for sex trafficking investigations are tasked with other duties (i.e. sex crimes, undercover narcotics, etc) and it was difficult to “free up” the necessary personnel on a consistent basis. The purpose of Project Blue Heat is to ensure we have personnel dedicated to this initiative for a specified period of time. The project was also a good opportunity to seek grant funds to assist with offsetting the costs of running proactive operations or stings.
Project Blue Heat goals:
- To identify and rescue underage persons who are victims of sex trafficking
- To identify and arrest sexual predators who are looking to traffic and/or engage in sexual activity with underage persons
So far, we believe it has been successful on a number of fronts. We identified and rescued two 15-year-old girls who were being trafficked last year. These are separate, unrelated incidents and their cases are still on-going. In addition, we have a plan to consistently address sex trafficking in our community, we have made arrests of buyers to support demand reduction initiatives and we have established contacts with several adults who we suspect are victims of trafficking. They have been provided resource information as a potential “out” for them to use to break free from the life of prostitution.
- How has the Hickey Family Foundation played a role in Project Blue Heat?
Sgt. Kaufman: The Hickey Family Foundation has been a phenomenal partner and resource for us. They were one of the first groups to come to Mesa PD and ask questions about what we are doing to combat sex trafficking. They not only helped us identify the problem, but provided funding and networking resources to help create solutions. We submitted for a grant from the Foundation at the end of last year to fund some operations for Blue Heat during 2015. They graciously approved our grant and the funds have been used exclusively for our sex trafficking operations this year.
- How big of a problem is trafficking in Arizona?
Sgt. Kaufman: That is the number one question that everyone wants to know. The problem is…we don’t really know for sure. I can quote national statistics and research estimates that are found in various studies and publications, but I think the real answer is found from two valuable sources:
- Interviews with those arrested for prostitution in Mesa
- Online escort ads and “john” discussion blogs
When you start researching ads, and asking questions of those in the life, you come to realize this is happening everywhere. There are hundreds of escort type ads posted every day that mention “Mesa” or “East Valley”. Are all of those ads consenting adults? No…of course not. And when you speak to the adults who are now doing this without a pimp or trafficker, most will tell you that they got started when they were under the age of 18. This tells me we have a very big problem.
- What inspired your department’s decision to focus on sex trafficking?
Sgt. Kaufman: We were inspired by questions from the community (including the Hickey Family Foundation), as well as our current Special Victims Unit Detectives and Missing Persons Investigators who had a feeling our “at-risk” youth population was being recruited by pimps/traffickers.
- What is different about the way your department is addressing the issue of trafficking?
Sgt. Kaufman: Mesa PD does not have a trafficking or Vice Unit, so we were forced to use a multidisciplinary approach to working these cases. We combined Special Victims Detectives with Undercover Detectives for targeted operations.
- One article stated that “ultimately, there’s a whole new approach to fighting human trafficking in Mesa.” What is the new approach?
Sgt. Kaufman: Not really a new approach, just a different focus. Rather than focusing on arresting prostitutes, we are looking to identify and arrest pimps and buyers.
- For the past several years, the Hickey Family Foundation helped bring over 100 law enforcement officers, prosecutors and other professionals from Arizona to the JuST Conference in DC. Can you talk about the effect this trip had on you and your team? Have you noticed a difference in Arizona’s response because of the training they received?
Sgt. Kaufman: In my opinion, the annual Shared Hope Conference is the premier training and networking event for sex trafficking investigators and victim service providers. People return from the conference with a better understanding of the scope of the problem. Hearing first-hand accounts from survivors really impacts the participants in a profound way. Mesa has been lucky to have representatives attend the conference each of the last 3 years, and I feel we have gained improved support from our chain of command due to this.
- What are the areas of most concern for you currently in the fight against human trafficking in Arizona?
Sgt. Kaufman: We are doing a good job reacting to cases that come in, but my biggest concern is on the prevention side. I’d really like to see more programs for educating our youth to prevent them from being future victims and/or buyers.
Meet Sgt. Domenick Kaufman at the 2015 JuST Conference! Sgt. Kaufman is teaming up with Detective Scott Carpenter of the Scottsdale Police Department to present No Vice Squad…No Problem! A Multi-Disciplinary Response to Sex Trafficking in Your Jurisdiction. This session is designed specifically for agencies without a dedicated vice squad or human trafficking unit. This course will offer strategies for identifying the scope of sex trafficking in your jurisdiction, raising awareness for law enforcement and the community, developing protocols for sex trafficking investigations and collaborating with non-governmental organizations to increase resources in lean budgetary times. The training will provide an overview of how agencies are applying the victim-centered approach to their investigations. Case studies will demonstrate how this collaborative approach increases the recovery of trafficked victims along with the arrest and prosecution of traffickers and buyers.
Learn more and register at sharedhope.org/just2015.
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Rachel de la Torre says
Sgt. Kaufman, I appreciate MPD’s focus to ending sex trafficking. Working with victims of sex trafficking, as the agency I work for has one of the only shelters who accepts adult sex trafficking victims in AZ. So often their stories include their mother trading them for basic needs such as rent or for drugs. I have met many from Mesa. A sad unidentified crime until the girl grows into an adult and is arrested for prostitution. I appreciate LE’s collaborative approach to save these victims!…Thank you!