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Grant funds new sergeant, new task force on sex trafficking

The Washington County Sheriff's Office recently created a new sergeant position to lead ongoing investigation efforts targeting sex trafficking in the east metro following County Board approval Jan. 9.

A recent grant of $313,000 from the Department of Justice Programs with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety will fund the new position for two years.

The new sergeant will head the East Metro Sex Trafficking task force, a seven-person team set to launch officially early this year.

The person to fill the position will work undercover starting this month.

The start date, Sheriff Dan Starry said, was good timing.

January is Sex Trafficking Awareness month. The 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis follows closely after.

Starry said major sporting events typically spark law enforcement and the public's awareness of the issue.

"We know that when the Super Bowl goes away, this doesn't stop," Starry said. "We know that from what we've found out all along."

The Washington County Attorney's Office established its Major Crimes Unit in early 2016 to pursue and prosecute organized crime. The focus later shifted to human trafficking as the the scope of the issue emerged.

With a new leadership role, Starry said the new task force will continue working with the County Attorney's Office as well as local law enforcement agencies.

Woodbury and Oakdale Police departments will each supply a full-time detective to work from the Sheriff's Office.

Starry said multiple departments often work on the same cases, so a centralized location will facilitate more collaboration among agencies.

"Any time you have people in one area working collaboratively, we can leverage our partnerships to the fullest," he said. "It's really a multiplier instead of one person trying to do it."

Human trafficking investigations often involve monitoring websites for posts potentially advertising commercial sex, investigators say. One such site early last year shut down its adult ads section, but authorities say posts using language tied to commercial sex advertisements transferred to other sections and websites.

Starry estimates law enforcement in Washington County has sifted through nearly 150,000 posts during their investigations.

Washington County, he said, has worked with about 54 human trafficking victims to offer resources and prosecute perpetrators.

Although Starry said he expects the new task force to yield more trafficker arrests, victims remain his department's priority.

"If we help one victim, that's a success for us," Starry said. "If that means someone someone will not exploit our youth, our vulnerable in Washington County, that's a win for us."

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