An effort to train each of the 210 or so employees of Jefferson Lines, a Minneapolis-based transit company that serves Billings and other communities in 14 states, to recognize the signs of human trafficking has paid off over the past three months, a company spokesman said.
Since the training three months ago by Busing on the Lookout, a Colorado-based program of Truckers against Trafficking that educates bus companies and others on how to help stem the scourge of human trafficking, Jefferson Lines employees helped detect two cases of suspected trafficking.
“Everyone in the organization — including the CEO — went through a 1½-hour training session,” said Kevin Pursey, Jefferson Lines’ sales director. “From our perspective, passenger safety is number one. If these folks are part of our bus trip, it’s important for us to look after them.”
Penny Ronning, a Billings city councilwoman who co-founded the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force, said the company’s willingness to undergo human trafficking training “says that what we are doing in the task force is working.”
“This is the way we have to fight this,” she said. “We have to train people to be our eyes and ears, because we are underfunded — especially when it comes to trafficking. The more we get trained, the better the chance that law enforcement can get to the victim in a timely fashion.”
Traffickers are also using airline service to take victims from place to place quickly, said Ronning, herself a former flight attendant.
“Discount airlines are another pipeline,” she said. “Airlines are doing training for their flight attendants, and we’re really excited about that.”
She said the local human trafficking task force will soon begin training ticket agents at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, the state’s busiest, “and we hope to start doing the same thing in Billings.”
“The (Transportation Safety Administration) already does training, which is awesome,” Ronning said. “As a former flight attendant, I always tell people we are first responders, first and foremost.”
Brandon Wooley, administrative lieutenant for the Billings Police Department, said in an email that employees of companies like Jefferson Lines and other front line positions such as hotel and motel clerks “are in positions to observe warning signs that are crucial, which would not ordinarily be recognized without some training.”
“The observation and reporting of warning signs by these staff allows for early detection and intervention by law enforcement," he said, "not only to conduct an investigation, but to get the victims in touch with victims’ rights advocates.”
Wooley called training efforts “a very important part of a comprehensive approach to the human trafficking problem. Law enforcement is not capable of being effective by doing it alone. Efforts to identify and combat human trafficking must involve everyone — the community, law enforcement, the court system, and arguably the most important part, victims’ rights advocates and their available resources.”