Saturday marks the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, and authorities are asking for the public's help in cracking down on sex traffickers trying to cash in on the crowd.
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear is warning people to be on the lookout for signs of human trafficking.
Last Derby season, Beshear's office worked with local law enforcement in trying to root out trafficking operations. He said that effort led to multiple arrests and the rescue of a 14-year-old girl.
Beyond the horses, hats and mint juleps, Beshear said the crowd should be aware of the signs of human trafficking as thousands travel to Louisville.
"People that appear malnourished and have physical injuries, that avoid eye contact and seem to adhere to limited, scripted or rehearsed responses to social interaction, that lack official documentation or personal possessions, or are unable to identify what town or state that they're in or where they're staying," Beshear said.
Knoxville is less than four hours by car from Louisville via major highways. Authorities in Tennessee point to Knoxville's geographic location with proximity to Atlanta, in addition to its access to several major interstates, as reasons it may be an easy target for human traffickers.
Kate Trudell, executive director of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said human trafficking can flourish in the environment of a major sporting event.
"When you throw a bunch of people in the same space, and there's alcohol and excitement and activity happening, it's intuitive to think that other activities will be on the rise, and sex trafficking is no different than that," Trudell said.
Human trafficking is essentially modern day slavery, Trudell said. It's the use of force, fraud or coercion to induce someone into doing a labor, service or sexual act.
Trudell also adds that there is no such thing as a child prostitute in the state of Tennessee. If a commercial sex act involves someone under the age of 18, it is considered human trafficking.
Trudell said the highway system across Tennessee and in Knoxville provides "perfect mobility" for traffickers, and people should be on alert if they are traveling to a major sporting event, such as the Kentucky Derby.
"If you're traveling to a sporting event and you were to stop at a rest stop on the way and see someone who might look like they're living out of their car or not able to go to the restroom on their own because someone's controlling their behavior, those are all red flags," Trudell adds.
The Kentucky attorney general is hosting a training session prior to the derby for law enforcement, prosecutors and others to combat human trafficking.
In Tennessee, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation started beefing up its efforts to fight human trafficking in 2015 by hiring four agents specifically devoted to investigating those cases.
Leslie Earhart, a public information officer for the TBI, said part of their job is to train other law enforcement agencies to spot the signs of human trafficking in their local communities.
"As a result of that, we find that more agencies and residents in general are recognizing the issue and reporting it to us," Earhart said.
The TBI has done multiple human trafficking operations across the state to combat the problem, Earhart said. The agency is not only going after the traffickers, but also the buyers.
"It's also important that we go after those creating the demand," she said. "If it wasn't for those purchasing elicit sex, we wouldn't have a problem with human trafficking."
Those working to prevent human trafficking want people to be on alert during race day at the Kentucky Derby, but also stress that the problem goes beyond one singular event.
"Certainly that environment does invite the space for more people to be exploited than normal, but we have to remember that it's an every day issue," Trudell said.
To report an instance of human trafficking, call the Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-855-55-TNHTH. For more information, visit ItHasToStop.com.
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