Community worried about impacts of Phoenix police staffing within human trafficking unit

Posted at 6:13 PM, Dec 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-09 00:45:21-05

As the Phoenix Police Department faces a major staffing crisis, community groups worry about how all of this will impact their mission. 

Earlier this week, police announced they were in the midst of a big reshuffling to get more officers out on the streets patrolling. Detectives and officers from specialty squads were being re-assigned to fill the need. Now community groups working closely with some of the specialty squads are uncertain what this means for them.  Sources within the department are saying big changes are coming, and some squads could be disbanded.

ABC15 reached out to Streetlight Phoenix and Defenders of Children, agencies that work with abused children and victims of sex trafficking, staff there work closely with the Phoenix Police Department vice unit over sex and human trafficking.

In a letter to city council, Kimberly Ririe, executive director of Defenders of Children wrote: 

"We are concerned that if the Phoenix vice squad over sex and human trafficking is to be disbanded, that victims will no longer have a voice, patience, understanding, and proper identification by law enforcement as a victim in order to receive victim services. They will, yet again, be thrown by the way side, ignored by the public, and failed by the system that is supposed to protect them. The City of Phoenix has come too far in helping these true victims to turn their backs on them now...Perpetrators and pimps will prevail as they know they have 'won' the fight and are no longer in danger of being pursued. Customers and 'johns will prevail as there will be no one conducting sting operations, and no one to hold them accountable for their inappropriate and unacceptable behavior."

Ririe said many of the victims of sex trafficking had no sense that what they were doing was wrong, because they grew up in that world. Violence was "normalized" for them. The specially trained vice squad had been instrumental in helping many of them understand their rights, get services, counseling, and turn their lives around.

Lea Benson the CEO of Streetlight Phoenix said human trafficking was very prevalent in Arizona, and the victims were of all ages and backgrounds.

"We have gotten a call for an 8-year old, we know people trafficked at the age of 3," said Benson.

Both women pleaded with city officials to think about the children when making the important decisions.

"My plea is don't do this, keep the vice squad intact, keep it fully staffed," said Ririe.

"I understand budget cuts but it's really important to understand the impact to children, that this is impacting," added Benson.

ABC15 reached out to Phoenix police to find out the status of this specialty squad. A spokeswoman sent us this statement: 

"We are still in the process of finalizing the reallocation. Please know that this will involve officers from throughout our entire department, not just detectives. Many of the officers will just be refocusing their duties to first responder functions. Very few case carrying detectives will be reallocated as we work to minimize the impact to those work groups and services. These types of decisions affect everyone involved our officers, our community and our city therefore we are reminded that a collective decision is needed and will be made with everyone’s best interest in mind."