January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. I talked with Phoenix’s Vice Mayor Jim Waring after a meeting on the subject to learn more about the Compass Plan. This innovative plan is tasked with creating a safe environment for the Super Bowl and spreading Phoenix’s anti-human trafficking message. After the Compass Plan was implemented, Cindy McCain and the McCain Institute, in conjunction with Arizona State University, somewhat debunked the theory that the Super Bowl is the largest event on the planet for human trafficking. Instead, their report found that although this deplorable activity travels with events such as the Super Bowl, it really is happening every day of the year.
In response, Phoenix ramped up its efforts, using the Super Bowl’s platform to spread awareness. The city teamed up with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, who put together a series of Public Service Announcements featuring Kurt and Brenda Warner among other local celebrities. Leading up to the Super Bowl, visitors will see ads on TV, previews at the movies, and billboards around town announcing, “Arizona’s Not Buying It.” The collective response is impressive. Interfaith organizations, the resort industry, and the private sector have all donated time and resources to combat this issue.
The Vice Mayor explained Phoenix’s four-part plan—law enforcement, training, awareness, and victims’ services. As a result, the city’s Vice Squad, one of the largest in the country, has doubled the number of arrests of johns (individuals paying for sex), has trained almost a thousand tourism industry employees, has rescued almost a dozen trafficked girls and is spreading the word. At the meeting, the Vice Mayor encouraged the city to amend its laws so that a john’s arrest was no longer discretionary but mandatory, accompanied by a 30-day vehicle impound and mandatory post-conviction education. The Vice Mayor feels that upping the ante is essential. He wants johns to experience the humiliation of being booked in jail and the discomfort of being locked up with other serious offenders.
But the most poignant moment at the meeting was when Carolyn Jones approached the microphone. Through Street Lights USA, Jones is committed to helping girls get out of this insidious industry. Her personal testimony—about being recruited into this life as a child, being shot, stabbed, and abused by pimps and johns, and later, using drugs to cope with the pain—left the room silent. She continues to carry the emotional scars, a shame that she deemed worse than any physical trauma she experienced.
Afterward the Vice Mayor explains there really isn’t anything worse than “taking a ten- or twelve-year-old and selling them into this life, and really ruining their lives. The only thing worse would be to kill them. The fact that anyone bounces back from that is amazing.”
It seems the more I learn about sex trafficking, the more issues present themselves. But luckily, Phoenix is focused on tackling each one. The Vice Mayor said that the biggest challenge is going after affluent and savvy perpetrators who use the Internet. “This is particularly egregious because it is premeditation gone wild. A person is sitting in a hotel, pulling out a credit card, planning and looking, sometimes weeks in advance.” The Vice Mayor told me that an effort is underway to use money from the state lottery to combat online trafficking, and the Arizona legislature is working to pass tougher laws. After the Compass Plan launched its media campaign, a call came in regarding a suspicious looking craigslist advertisement, which led to an arrest. The Vice Mayor explained, “We are trying to make it so that it is harder to do. You feel worse about it, so that we can cut down on the people who are doing it.”
When I asked Waring what he learned over the last year, the Vice Mayor said, “It is worse than I thought. It is more organized than I thought. I didn’t know people were being transported all around. It is happening right here in the United States. People don’t want to address that it is happening here, that it could be happening to my kid, and the global perspective is horrible when you consider the number of people who are living this kind of life of misery and degradation.”
I was moved by the Vice Mayor’s tenacity, and the Super Bowl is by no means a stopping point. He hopes to double Phoenix’s efforts in the year to come. He would like to get more girls out, and to do this, he wants to “make more of the focus where it should rightly be put, on pimps and johns.” I wish him much success and hope that other regions of the country adopt a similar approach to eventually eradicate the problem.