SPOKANE, Wash. – It has been almost a year since the Spokane Police Department created a unit dedicated to fighting human trafficking.
Spokane Police leaders said they have made several arrests since creating the unit and have decided to pull a detective from the Major Crimes Unit to work specifically on these cases.
“You may not recognize it, you may not see it and understand what you're looking for but it is occurring here,” said Lieutenant Steve Wohl.
Sex trafficking is becoming a growing problem in our area, according to Spokane Police. But they said it is one they are ready to take on. Detective said part of the increase is due to gangs moving from selling drugs to selling people.
“Realizing that they can make money as well through human trafficking they've got a resource that they can use repeatedly and abuse unfortunately and sell to different people,” said Lt. Wohl.
It is not just gangs targeting underage boys and girls. In just one year, the unit has made several notable arrests. This includes the arrest of Matthew Plank, a Spokane man who worked for several local nonprofits and another Spokane man named Gary Madsen. Police said they caught both men trying to have sex with underage girls in exchange for money.
Another notable arrest was Bruce Anderson. Detectives said they setup a sting operation and caught Anderson trying to pimp out who he thought was a 16-year-old girl but was actually an undercover Spokane Police Officer. Court documents said Anderson met the undercover officer at Northtown Mall and offered money and a place to stay if she would come work for him.
Although the underage girl in the case was a setup, it is not always an officer that is being solicited. Spokane Police also see cases where children become the victims of human trafficking. Erin Williams from Lutheran Community Services said traffickers are good at manipulating and pulling in those who are most vulnerable.
“Traffickers are very good at manipulating young people into doing what it is they need to do to make money,” Williams explained.
Human trafficking is an issue that is hard to track because in many cases victims are unwilling or unable to come forward. Both Spokane Police and Lutheran Community Services are working to let victims know they have a place to turn for help.
“The more survivors know that there are people who care and want them to be safe all of that helps,” said Williams.
Juvenile detention centers have added a screening process in the last year to try to identify victims of human trafficking to get a better idea of how big a problem it is among children ages 11 to 17. Spokane Police are also already working to partner with the FBI to devote more resources to fighting human trafficking in Spokane.