In February 2020, Vestavia Hills police were able to rescue four children from trafficking and arrest the man suspected of trafficking them.
Capt. Johnny Evans with the Vestavia Hills Police Department said without the training they received as part of being named a “Human TraffickingFree Zone” in November 2019, they might not have been able to spot what was happening.
As the city continues to train its employees on how to spot and prevent human trafficking, the Police Department is seeing success in cracking down on these cases.
“Our officers now, when they’re dealing with people, know to look for certain things,” Evans said. “We’ve really been able to notice more of the signs.”
Becoming a “Human TraffickingFree Zone” is part of the Child Trafficking Solutions Project, formed in response to the passage of the state’s Safe Harbor Act, created by former state Rep. Jack Williams from Vestavia Hills.
The program is managed at the local level by the project but is an initiative of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking.
In order to be designated as such a zone, there are three steps the city must take: passing a proclamation declaring the city to be a Human TraffickingFree Zone, undergoing training for city personnel (in particular first responders) and businesses in the city, and lastly, a zero tolerance policy for city employees caught purchasing sex at work. City Manager Jeff Downes previously said that policy is already in place, and any city employee found to have done so would be fired.
Barbara Fowler has been involved in anti-trafficking efforts since 2017 and also works with the project. Fowler, who made the award-winning short film on human trafficking, “Hidden Gems,” said Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry has been a “great advocate” in the fight against human trafficking.
“Even through COVID-19, the city is doing online training,” Fowler said.
Fowler said it’s vital not just to train city staff, but to also offer training to those in the school system and in the community so that the city as a whole is committed to watching for signs of human trafficking and making sure it doesn’t happen in Vestavia.
“It really is a hidden problem,” Fowler said. “I hope people will see it in a different light.”
Due to being a “Human TraffickingFree Zone” and going through the subsequent training, it raises the chances that if someone sees something that looks wrong, they’ll say something, Fowler said.
Curry said Vestavia has been successful in making these changes because of the buy-in from its residents.
“Everyone is on board,” Curry said. “When you don’t have buy-in, you aren’t going to get anywhere.”
Curry said he is proud that Vestavia was the first city in the state to be declared a “Human TraffickingFree Zone” and said it shows residents are behind the effort and committed to stopping the problem.
Curry was inspired to take the lead on this issue because of his more than 25 years in law enforcement, where he witnessed the dangers and horrors of human trafficking firsthand.
“It’s just disgusting to me that children can be trafficked,” Curry said.
The internet clearly plays a large role in the crime, Evans said. But while online contact of children is up during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s put a halt on traveling because of restrictions due to the virus, Evans said. There also are concerns during large events like the Super Bowl, Olympics and the World Games, which are coming to Birmingham in 2022. Those large gatherings provide cover and opportunity for traffickers to engage in their crimes, Evans said.
The training, however, is making a difference, Evans said, at large events like the World Games and races at Talladega Superspeedway, and on a daily basis in Vestavia.
“People are going to quit coming to this area because they know they’re going to be caught,” Evans said.