Originally published 3/3/2014 and updated on 6/13/2014
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Sex trafficking is not just an issue impacting people living in a far off land.
The FBI ranks the Twin Cities as one of 13 U.S. cities with a high rate of child prostitution, according to the Women's Foundation of Minnesota.
To illustrate how big the issue is, St. Paul Police officials recently granted KARE 11 News a rare inside look at new ways of combating the problem.
Over a number of days, cameras followed members of the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force while they conducted stings. They not only arrested suspects but also rescued young women, which is new for law enforcement and part of the new Safe Harbor Law. The law states girls under 18 should be treated as victims, not as criminals.
St. Paul Police, Roseville Police, Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension were part of the sting.
While in a hotel room located in Ramsey County, undercover officers posted an ad on backpage.com which carries ads for escorts.
"As soon as we place that ad and it pops up online, the undercover phones start ringing," said Commander John Bandemer with the St. Paul Police Department.
How long does it take? KARE 11 timed it and found that it took just 90 seconds after police posted the ad for someone to call the undercover officer's phone. And the phone did not stop ringing.
"I've missed probably thirty calls already," said the undercover officer, who we're not identifying to protect her safety.
Police arrested a total of five men during the sting who have since been charged, according to Roseville Police.
"There's a lot of demand for it, and there's plenty of supply unfortunately," said Bandemer.
Just look online and you'll find an endless stream of ads where people can simply buy sex as easy as buying a pizza. St. Paul Police say one out of ten women they make contact with is underage.
"I would view it as modern day human slavery," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. "If you got runaway kids in your community, you've got this issue."
In fact, Choi said one-third of runaway children are sexually exploited.
That's why law enforcement and advocates support the Safe Harbor Law. It officially goes into effect August 1st, but many communities have already adopted the changes, including St. Paul.
During another sting, St. Paul officers called girls listed on backpage.com who appeared to be underage.
"We don't intend to arrests these girls. We want to connect them to services and get them out of the lifestyle that they are in," said an undercover officer, who we're not identifying to protect his safety.
Shortly after the girl arrived to a location in St. Paul, police identified who they were and moved her to another room where she told police something they have unfortunately heard before.
"I've been wanting out, but they wouldn't let me leave," she told police.
The girl, who turned out to be 18 years old, said she was homeless and her pimp tricked her into prostitution. With no money it was difficult to leave, she said.
She also told police she wasn't the only one who needed help. Her 18-year-old friend had also been tricked into prostitution, she said. That friend was at a nearby hotel room, possibly with a man who was armed.
Police drove to the hotel and found the girl alone. She apparently told police she was too afraid to leave without her friend.
Although police did not arrest the two girls, officers technically could have because the Safe Haven Law only protects females under 18 years of age.
"What Safe Harbor does not do is protect adult victims. And that's why we're hoping this is just a step in the right direction," said Noelle Volin with the advocacy group Breaking Free.
Volin wants all women treated as victims. After all, she said 85 percent of adult women involved in prostitution started when they were children.
"If you are being sold into prostitution you are a victim," she said.
Police arrested the pimp in the case involving the two 18 year old women and the Ramsey County Attorney's office eventually charged the man with sex trafficking. If history is any judge, he could be facing a tougher sentence than he would have just a few years ago.
In January, the Ramsey County Attorney's office got the longest sex trafficking sentence in Minnesota history where Otis Washington received 40 years in prison for trafficking several women and girls.
Choi recently told KARE 11 he believes longer sentences are happening in part because when law enforcement treat the girls as victims they are more willing to share their stories of abuse.
"Now you're seeing sentences at least in the double digits," said Choi about cases that are closed.
Advocacy groups have played a big part in the efforts to stop sex trafficking, as well. The Women's Foundation of Minnesota has provided grant money to organizations in the area, including St. Paul and Minneapolis Police, as well as the Ramsey County Attorney's Office.
The bottom line, experts believe it is going to take everyone in the community to stop sex trafficking.
"We as a community should be doing everything possible to end this," said Choi.