Law enforcement officers trained to spot human-trafficking indicators

March 10, 2019

After a Scottsbluff Police officer stopped a driver on May 1,2018, for a traffic violation, he experienced an unexpected situation: a woman in the car told the officer that she was being held against her will.

The woman told police that two women, Nichelle Sands, 29, of Scottsbluff, and Kathie Betancourt-Robles, 22, of Gering, did not allow her to go anywhere alone or to have a cell phone under the orders of two men, Taylor Dunham, 25, of Gering, and Jeremy Masoner, 31, of Scottsbluff, according to court documents. The woman told police that she had been held against her will for two weeks — at times with a gun held against her head or chest or threatened she would be chopped with a machete— to be forced to have sex with others in order to raise funds to get a third man out of jail. The individuals blamed the woman for the arrest of Robles’ boyfriend three weeks earlier because she had been the driver of a vehicle stopped by police. The men had also taken the woman’s birth certificate, identification and personal items.

Ultimately, all four people in the scheme were convicted of charges in Scotts Bluff County District Court. In October, Dunham and Masoner were both sentenced to 12 to 14 years in prison on felony charges of sex trafficking and attempted use of a firearm to commit a felony. In September, Betancourt-Robles was sentenced to two to six years imprisonment on felony charges of terroristic threats and sex trafficking and Sands was sentenced in October to two to eight years on felony charges of attempted terroristic threats and sex trafficking.

Scottsbluff Police Investigator Brandi Brunz, one of the members of the Panhandle Region Team of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force, said the arrests and convictions of the two men and two women were able to be made because a patrol officer observed indicators of a possible human trafficking situation during the stop and reached out to the task force for further investigation.

This situation started out as a traffic stop and then the victim made comments about wanting to leave and needing to get away from the other individuals in the car, Brunz said.

“At that point, officers started asking more questions, brought everyone in for interviews … and it was realized that the woman was a victim,” she said.

Brunz said she compares working human trafficking cases to working drug interdiction or domestic violence cases.

“These types of cases have signs and indicators that, when noticed by officers, can lead to additional questions that need to be asked, to help us see what is going on or recognize it quicker, and be able to help the victims,” she said.

Research shows that most victims of human trafficking will have contact with law enforcement or health professionals sometime during their victimization, Brunz said. Last year, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and Panhandle Region Human Trafficking Task Force worked together to train health professionals with a one-day symposium. This week, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office trained personnel from law enforcement agencies throughout the region on human trafficking, offering two three-hour training sessions for sworn officers Thursday.

The training was also held in other communities throughout the state, Glen Parks, who leads the state’s human trafficking efforts as coordinator of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force, said. Trainings were held in Madison, Grand Island and North Platte, in addition to Scottsbluff and planned trainings in Omaha and Lincoln.

Like health professionals and hotel operators, Parks noted that law enforcement officers are a key group to train on recognizing the signs of human trafficking.

“The main purpose, as law enforcement are out, doing their regular jobs, whatever it is … is that they are aware of what is happening in Nebraska, they are able to recognize the signs of human trafficking and they know who to contact for that next step in a human trafficking case,” Parks said.

During the trainings, Parks gives officers some education on elements of human-trafficking and other applicable laws. Anna Brewer, former FBI agent and an investigator with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, gives law enforcement officers information on stories or situations that may be experienced in human-trafficking cases.

When the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office first began its focus on on anti-trafficking efforts, Parks said the most common question he received centered on whether human-trafficking really happens in Nebraska.

“It’s a big topic that people are reading about. We are getting less and less skepticism that it is a Nebraska problem,” he said, noting that labor and sex trafficking cases have occurred throughout the state.

“It is a heinous crime. It is slavery. You are forcing people, against their will,” Parks said.

Parks cited the Scottsbluff case as a significant sex-trafficking case in the Panhandle and the arrests and conviction of two hotel operators in Kimball on labor trafficking charges as indicative that labor and sex trafficking cases occur throughout the state. Parks said he has also been working on efforts to recognize and expose labor trafficking cases.

He credits increased awareness to the effort by the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and the five regional task forces. Parks said he envisions a day when the state will have a Neighborhood Watch-type effort in combatting human trafficking because the general public and others have been educated about human trafficking, “making the state an inhospitable place for this type of crime.”

To date, more than 1,500 law enforcement professionals have been trained on spotting the signs of human trafficking, as well as the tools and resources available through the state’s five task forces. The trainings were offered to any agency, of any size. Likewise, any agency, of any size, can become involved in the regional task force.

Parks praised the Panhandle Regional Task Force as the most inclusive across the state, including area health and service providers. The task force has built good connections and relationships that have allowed its members to be responsive in human-trafficking cases, he said. He said he encourages officials in smaller departments to become involved.

For more information on the Panhandle Regional Task Force, contact Scottsbluff Police Chief Kevin Spencer, who heads the local task force and is also a member of the state task force.