More federal prosecutions and greater public awareness have put a dent in human trafficking in Billings, but much work remains.
A few illicit commercial sex businesses have closed, but several others continue to operate claiming to offer "spa" or "massage." Victims of human trafficking, usually females, often minors, have been assisted to get out of the life they have been coerced into. FBI victim assistance specialists and the only federal agent dedicated to stopping human trafficking in Montana have helped victims.
Yet the sex trade continues with cases of Billings high school students as victims now under investigation. Ads for sex in our city abound on the internet — many more explicit than posts on backpage.com, which the federal government shut down.
Meeting Wednesday at Billings Public Library, members of the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force assessed the successes seen in the three years since the volunteer group formed and the big challenges ahead. Thanks to advocacy by members of the Yellowstone Task Force and similar groups around the state, the 2019 Legislature approved and Gov. Steve Bullock signed measures aimed at helping state and local law enforcement crack down on commercial sex businesses. The laws become effective on Oct. 1.
The Legislature and Bullock also appropriated funds to hire two Montana Division of Criminal Investigation agents to work on stopping human trafficking in our state. The Department of Justice is in the process of filling those positions, which will be based in Billings to work on cases statewide.
Members of the Yellowstone County task force have collectively provided thousands of hours of training to law enforcement, health care providers, educators, truckers and the general public on how to recognize and report signs of trafficking. On Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter and Task Force Co-chairs Stephanie Baucus and Penny Ronning presented four hours of training to Transportation Security Administration managers from all over the state. Asked during the training if they had seen signs of trafficking in their airport work, virtually all the TSA managers nodded yes.
At the Task Force meeting, Walter reported that Billings customer visits seem to have declined at local commercial sex businesses since The Billings Gazette published an investigative project written by Phoebe Tollefson, on July 17. That Gazette report, "Spa crackdown shifts to landlords" detailed cases that have been prosecuted through the U.S. Attorney's Office. It appears that buyers from outside Yellowstone County continue to patronize these establishments.
With the state soon to have two anti-trafficking officers, momentum is building to make Montana a place that traffickers won't want to do their abusive business. This progress is the result of many, many partnerships between community members, churches, health care providers and lawful businesses, especially the trucking industry.
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"We need to be working at this at the federal level, we need those two agents working at the state level, we need our law enforcement working at the local level," said Ronning, who is a Billings City Council member.
Unfortunately, the most experienced trafficking investigator is being reassigned. The FBI has given Walter new duties that will reduce his time on trafficking work to part time.
This reassignment, reported at the Task Force meeting, is a step backward for our community and our state. Walter told The Gazette that he couldn't comment, but Ronning minced no words: "Without Brandon Walter, without the FBI presence, the job would be much more difficult," Ronning said. "The person we work most closely with is FBI special agent Brandon Walter."
FBI victim assistance specialists are available to victims during federal investigations, but Ronning says assistance isn't available on the same level during state or local investigations. Ronning said Walter won't be available to continue the frequent public speaking and training that he has been doing, such as the TSA training.
Human trafficking is a federal crime. Trafficking investigations may take months, even years, and require special knowledge and expertise to get victims to cooperate, to protect them and to collect evidence proving crime beyond reasonable doubt.
Our state and federal lawmakers this year have taken commendable action to start addressing the crises of human trafficking and of missing and murdered Native American women and girls. Human trafficking is a factor in some missing persons cases. FBI leadership should hear from Sen. Steve Daines, Sen. Jon Tester, Rep. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme, so the they better understand the Montana consequences of this reassignment. We call on these federal officeholders to speak up to keep Walter on trafficking work full time.
Montanans who want to keep the pressure on human traffickers to stay out of our state ought to let our congressional delegation know. Please contact them directly or send letters to the editor to email@example.com.