Chief for the Marginalized: Lexington Police are Holistically Approaching Prostitution and Trafficking

8.5 to 100. This drastic disparity represents the ratio of convicted offenders to identified victims.*  Human-trafficking-related arrests are increasing all across the country.  The government is cracking down on pimps, clients, and traffickers, and we are so glad.  The trade is finally being inhibited at its source; however, we can’t help but recall this ratio: 8.5 to 100.  Clearly, the amount of victims far surpasses the number of offenders. Though the government is doing much to bring justice to these victims by arresting perpetrators and buyers, we realize law enforcement needs help.  Refuge for Women was founded and is headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky--the city where police are setting the example for the rest of the nation on how to combat trafficking, while not leaving victims prey.  In an exclusive interview, Lexington chief of police, Mark Barnard, shares his tactic to be chief for everyone.  Especially chief for the marginalized.

Chief Barnard came onto the Lexington Police Department (LPD) at age 22; now he’s served there for 30 years.  In January of 2015, he became the chief of police.  He explained what it was like becoming chief during such a difficult time for policing, “I came in at such a contentious time for policing nationally, we had a crisis in police action.  It continues to grow.  What I realized, is we have to make the connection back to every segment of the community and listen to people. We (LPD) reach out to the marginalized and scrutinized so they feel they have an open door to the police.”

Weeks into his new role, a ministry called Natalie’s Sisters reached out to him.  Natalie’s Sisters is an outreach, referral, and resource ministry for women working in Lexington’s sex industry.  They asked a simple question, “Will you partner with us?”

As an officer, Chief Barnard had met a woman engaged in prostitution, Liza.  "When I met Liza, she was someone who was committing to crime.  But when I met her personally, I started hearing her stories.  To me, it was so personal to meet someone arrested on multiple charges and to look at her as a person rather than a suspect.  What I want for society is for people to look at someone as a person, instead of a number, to give even criminals that opportunity.  There is always something going on behind the action.  I said yes to Natalie’s Sisters because I know they want to help a group that society ignores.  I have a platform as chief, part of that platform is I’m chief for everyone."

But not everyone understands why the chief has compassion for sex workers, or why he should.

“Everything is interconnected,” he shares. “You have to break it down and not paint with a broad brush.  Is homelessness connected to trafficking and prostitution?  Absolutely.  We look into WHY is someone a prostitute.  We address the vice. We want to look at the underlying issues of prostitution.  I’ve never met anyone who told me, 'I want to be a prostitute, or a drug addict when I grow up.' So, what were the social pressures and triggers in that life?  Without looking at those underlying variables, I think you’re failing that person.  What is occurring, why is it occurring, look for the underlying issues and help. We push this aside a lot because we think prostitution is a victimless crime. When, in fact, diseases, crime, abuse, upbringing, mental health, poverty, and many other societal variables cultivate a life that makes someone perfect, vulnerable prey for trafficking and exploitation."

The Lexington Police Department partners with several anti-trafficking and victim-recovery groups in the area.  After work, numerous officers even volunteer with these groups to provide security for outreach teams.  All this with one purpose: "The key component is identifying a prostitute.  On the backside we’re providing referrals, programs, and meeting needs.  They (sex workers) understand we’re not coming after them for prostituting, we’re trying to identify ones who need help.  Recently, two human trafficking cases came out of one operation, and one case involving an out of state juvenile.  That’s important.  That came from one prostitution sting.  That’s why we bring programs on our stings, because you all can relate to them.  You all can meet their needs."

We inquired about the pain he felt for these women, and also for the public.  "The public doesn't realize people are forced into it, whether by abuser or by societal variables.  My greatest heartache is that we don’t take the time to listen and see why it's occurring, and see if there is an opportunity to help.  I think we can help these women end the cycle of homelessness and re-entering the sex industry, by identifying them and providing the resources and opportunities that would help them get out of it.  We should be looking at holistically-approaching opportunities for them.  We shouldn’t be criminalizing them to the point they can’t get other work again.”

What the chief understands is the cycle of entrapment victims face.  His detective in human trafficking, Rick Lynn, explained to us the newest pimping trend in Kentucky is led by hands-off drug dealers.  At first, drug dealers prey on young, vulnerable women and get them hooked on heroin.  Once a girl is addicted, the dealer has secured a constant cash-flow.  The victim cannot secure a job with addiction, so she consequently enters sex work for money.

On June 3rd of this year, The Wall Street Journal* covered a study revealing 220 counties at risk of an HIV and Hepatitis C outbreak.  Kentucky owns 56 percent of those vulnerable counties.  This study highlights a specific and startling cause.  “...the forces of poverty and addiction drove a needle-sharing drug problem that caused the first HIV outbreak related to the current opioid crisis in America.”  The relation from poverty and vulnerability to the drug-dealing agenda is directly causing an outbreak of HIV, Hepatitis C, and rising addicts.  Sex workers are among the most affected.

“It doesn’t matter if you check all the right boxes,” says the Chief,  “if you go to rehab, get help, and do everything right.  If you get dropped back into the former life you came from, the chances of a successful recovery are drastically lower.”

8.5 to 100.  For every pimp and trafficker arrested, and every prostitution sting conducted, the Lexington Police Department realizes there will be victims identified who need help.  They need shelter, substance abuse treatment, trauma counseling, medical attention, life-skills training, and hopeful options for work and education.  This is why the Lexington Police Department partners with groups like Natalie’s Sisters and Refuge for Women--to offer hope, a way out, and a hand up.



Estimates from the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report by the U.S. Department of State