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Florida Hotels are Ground Zero for Horrific Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation

Lawmakers must put hotels back in the anti-trafficking bill in order to hold these evil forces accountable, writes retired police officer Alan Wilkett.

I can’t unsee the things I’ve seen.

I worked for over 25 years as a cop. Before retiring from Pasco County – during the last several years of my career – I headed up the human trafficking task force. Throughout my 25+ years of law enforcement, I planned, executed and participated in countless operations against human trafficking and exploitation – many, and some of the most egregious, took place in hotels.  

Being on the frontlines of fighting this terrible evil, I’ve seen things that are almost impossible to describe. I’ve carried an eight-year-old girl in my arms out of the depths of the most horrifying nightmare you could imagine for a child. I’ve opened the door to discover a disabled man and his caregiver being exploited in an environment that would make even the most hardened of hearts fall to pieces.

Many of these cases – the cases that have left permanent scars on my heart and memory – happened in hotels. These hotels were not one-off, good actors who had no idea this was happening at their establishments. These hotels are repeat offenders that know exactly what is happening under their roofs and are complicit in the crime, and often worse – profiting from the crime themselves.

A bill with the original intent to hold the bad actors accountable for their role in exploiting a human life for financial gain is currently moving through the Florida Legislature. Now, with strong opposition from the hotel industry, hotels have been removed from the proposed law. The talking points touted by the hotel industry can be summed up with “what about the good actors?”

My question to them is what about the victims? The survivors? The exploited?

Safeguards were put in place in the originally filed legislation to protect the good actors. The ones doing the right thing. The ones that have training and supervision protocols, are enforcing those protocols, and taking reasonable measure to ensure they are doing what is right within their business. Those good actors would have affirmative defense and would have nothing to fear regarding frivolous lawsuits filed against them.

So again, I ask:

What about the victims? The survivors? The exploited?

What about that eight-year-old little girl? What about the countless little boys? What about the kids recovered from the control and abuse of their traffickers and buyers? Where is the justice for her? Where is the justice for them? Where is the justice for the countless victims and survivors of this terrible evil?

That justice can be found in a civil cause of action holding bad actors that are complicit in promoting the facilitation of human trafficking responsible and accountable for their crimes.

80 percent of reported human trafficking cases are taking place in hotels. Simply put, hotels are ground zero in the fight against human trafficking. We will not win the war against human trafficking until we cut it off at the source.

So why – when there are safeguards put in place for the good actors – are we shielding the bad actors from being held accountable? Why is the hypothetical, easily debunked, threat of frivolous lawsuits being held in higher regard than human life?

What message are we sending to traffickers and those bad actors when we take ground zero out of the equation? That they can continue on, business as usual? More importantly:

What message are we sending to victims and survivors?

I’ve spent my career telling victims and survivors there are people out there fighting for them. That their voices are being heard, and that their stories – their lives – matter. I can’t unsee the things I’ve seen, and I wouldn’t wish on anyone having those images ingrained in their minds. Once you’ve seen it – once you’ve witnessed a child too young to know what sex is be repeatedly abused, exploited, and sold for sex – you can’t ignore it.

I can’t unsee the things I’ve seen, but I can fight with everything in me to make sure no one has to live the nightmare so many of these victims lived for years.

Right now, members of the Florida Legislature have the chance to join in that fight. They have a chance to be a voice for the voiceless. They have the choice: Will they join these bad actors in being complicit in reducing a human life to nothing more than a transaction? Or will they take a stand against this horrific evil and hold those bad actors accountable by putting hotels back into the language of this bill?

The choice is really simple – turn a blind eye or see them!

Corporal (Ret.) Alan Wilkett recently retired from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office where he served for almost 15 years with a total law enforcement experience of over 25 years. He has trained and instructed law enforcement, federal agencies, state and local agencies, NGOs, along with multiple groups, churches, and organizations.

Wilkett was awarded the 2017 Florida Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Official of the Year and recently received the Law Enforcement Lifetime Achievement Award from the Florida Crime Prevention Association.

He is the founder of Warrior 321, an assembled team of trained volunteers with the mission to advocate for the vulnerable and marginalized in our communities affected by sex and labor trafficking.