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Prostitution numbers remain low in North Dakota as agencies deter buyers and human trafficking

Prostitution-related arrests have remained low in North Dakota cities like Grand Forks, in part because demand for sexual services is limited, investigators say.


Prostitution-related arrests have remained low in North Dakota cities like Grand Forks, in part because demand for sexual services is limited, investigators say.

For Grand Forks, it may be because the city's law enforcement agency takes a proactive approach in deterring the crime, Grand Forks Police Detective Steve Conley said.

"When you do a john (client) sting, is when we hit the demand side, directly at the gentlemen," he said. "Then the news gets out there, and they realize, 'Bad things can happen if I think I'm just going out to meet a girl in Grand Forks.' "

The city reported four prostitution-related arrests last year, Fargo had 10 and Bismarck arrested 16, according to data obtained from each city's police department. State totals for 2017 should come out in July, according to the North Dakota Attorney General's Office.

Of the 32,345 arrests made in 2016 in North Dakota, 20 consisted of prostitution-related crimes-six for suspects accused of trying to sell sexual services, one for promoting prostitution and 13 for purchasing. Numbers pulled from the attorney general's annual crime statistics report show prostitution makes up a small fraction of crime in the state, with the largest count coming in 2014 with 47 arrests.


The average number of arrests dating back to 1999, the earliest year the reports are available online, is about 14, according to an analysis of the state's crime reports by the Herald. Larger portions of the arrests tend to be reported in Fargo and Bismarck, the largest two cities in the state.

Grand Forks' peak in the last five years was 13 in 2015.

The numbers may be higher in other cities in part due to population, Conley said, but it's also because his department is active in investigating leads.

"We're actively going out and doing 'knock and talks,' " Conley said, referring to speaking with people who may be involved in the trade.

Human trafficking

With the exception of 2004, which had 15 arrests, North Dakota's numbers stayed in the single digits prior to 2011. Those numbers ramped up from five arrests in 2010 to 16 in 2011, 35 to 2012 and 43 in 2013.

That likely was because of increased demand in the state during the oil boom, Conley said. If something creates demand for people, others selling services, including sex, will also arrive, he said.

Officers started to realize some alleged prostitutes were human trafficking victims, said Fargo Police Sgt. Junell Krabbenhoft. That helped shift the focus from prostitution to targeting trafficking operations, as well as helping victims, she said.


Some agencies like the Bismarck Police Department don't have the resources to be as proactive as others when it comes to prostitution, Bismarck Police investigator Scott Betz said. Still, they take calls seriously and pursue human trafficking operations, he said.

"A lot of people don't think there is a prostitution problem," he said, but he pointed to the presence of human trafficking ads, arrests and victims.

The Fuse Project, an anti-human-trafficking organization, estimated more than 150 human trafficking victims were helped in 2014 in North Dakota. The North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force said in its first report that it served 79 victims in 2016, including 26 minors.

'You don't know'

Conley said his office makes contact with people familiar with the trade to conduct arrests and stings, though he declined to give too much detail in fear of jeopardizing strategies and investigations.

The "art of business" when it comes to human trafficking and prostitution has evolved as law enforcement and lawmakers pursue different avenues to prevent the crimes. Congress has come down on companies like Backpage.com, a website known to feature human trafficking ads.

"They haven't quashed it, but they have severely dismantled that as an option to use," Conley said, adding traffickers and prostitutes will advertise elsewhere without stating their intentions. "All they did was change the category they are under.

"The plethora of web pages people could be advertising on that people are aware of is endless," he added.


Investigators said they understand the intent to curb human trafficking, but they felt those involved will find different, more creative ways to hide their activities. They try to convince victims to let them help them, but that involves building trust, which can take time.

"It sometimes is hard for police to identify victims," Krabbenhoft said, adding it's probably harder for the public to spot the difference between a prostitute and human trafficking victim.

Krabbenhoft said her department appreciates residents calling suspicious activity in. Conley said the keys to detering prostitution include reducing demand and sending a message that purchasing sexual services is not a good idea in his city.

"I want them to know that if you make that date, you don't know if it is us or not," Conley said.

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