The NCAA Men’s Final Four is a time of excitement, suspense, and this year, it’s an opportunity to display Houston’s hospitality to the hundreds of thousands of people who will travel to our great city for the games. We welcome each and every visitor with open arms, friendly competition, our world famous Tex-Mex food and a cautionary message about an important topic that impacts too many in our community: human trafficking.
An increase in human trafficking can come with any event that brings in a large amount of people from around the country and the world. Traffickers view these events as a golden opportunity. In recent years there has been more awareness of this heinous crime surrounding the Super Bowl. Houston will also host the Super Bowl in 2017, and preparedness efforts are already underway, but this is not an annual effort unique to major sporting events. The buying and selling of human beings happens every day in Houston and throughout the United States. Unfortunately, our city has become a national hub for human trafficking. The good news is that many are fighting to end this scourge. We have come a long way already, but there is still a long way to go to eradicate modern day slavery in our city.
Combatting human trafficking is a priority at the local, state, and federal levels of government. Law enforcement agencies are working together to ensure that our city is safe not only during popular events like the Final Four and Super Bowl 51, but also every other day. When it comes to human trafficking law enforcement, government at all levels and nonprofit organizations that serve victims are coordinating and deploying proven approaches. What we really need more of is heightened awareness and participation from the community. Houstonians can continue to help by making calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline (1-888-373-7888) if they suspect human trafficking is occurring. In recent years, Texas has unfortunately had the second highest amount of calls to this hotline. While it is a good thing that the public is engaging, it is unfortunate that so many calls come from our state. With the public’s continued help, we can make sure that Texas is no longer one of the national ‘hotspots’ for this heinous crime.
Last year, we were able to obtain passage and enactment of the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. This federal law gives law enforcement additional tools to take down human traffickers. It targets the buyers - those predators who purchase humans - helps to ensure that those who have been sold into slavery are treated as victims, and creates a fund primarily paid for by the perpetrators themselves to serve trafficked victims. Locally, a brand new position dedicated to combatting trafficking was created within the Office of the Mayor.
This year, we’ve also seen city, county, and state law enforcement, government and non-profits working together to breakup trafficking rings and rescue trafficking victims. This is not done hastily. It requires time, collaboration and tremendous work. Texans have been on the front lines in the national fight against human trafficking. In January and February, an innovative sting, Operation Traveling Circus, brought together multiple law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, courts, and victims’ services in order to arrest traffickers, buyers, and provide victims with resources. In total, 259 buyers and 6 pimps were arrested. A hallmark of this sting was the important decision to not publicize the photos of the women arrested or rescued. After all, it can take time to determine the circumstances of those billed as “prostitutes,” as many actually may be victims of human trafficking.
In addition, just last week, Operation Batman led to the arrest of an acclaimed United Airlines pilot—Bruce Wayne Wallis. While many knew him as an aviator, authorities say he was a hard-nosed pimp, running brothels throughout Houston, selling up to 60 women at a time. In a joint operation of the Houston Police Department Vice Division and Texas Department of Public Safety, Wallis was arrested along with others believed to be involved with the ring of brothels.
Houston should serve as a shining example to the rest of the country in battling modern day slavery. In fact, the HPD Vice Division just won the Law Enforcement Innovation Award from the Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Network. This work will not stop. We will do all that we can to deter human trafficking, arrest those who buy and sell humans, and rescue and restore victims, not just during the big events in our city, but each and every day for as long as it is necessary.