Pontotoc Co. SVU gets training

Pontotoc County Special Victims Unit Investigators Kory Clowers (left) and Shermila McKinney (right) were congratulated by Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch (center) as certified investigators in Human Trafficking and also commemorated the passing of house bill 1559, which provides for the comfort and care of human trafficking victims and requires the hiring of a coordinator of services to these victims. Investigators McKinney and Clowers are members of the Northeast Mississippi Human Trafficking Task Force, working with other state and local agencies to combat the crime here in Pontotoc. 

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Pontotoc County’s Special Victim Unit Investigators Kory Clowers and Shermila McKinney recently attended training in Southaven provided by the Mississippi human trafficking task force board through the Mississippi Attorney Generals Office.

The pair came away with a whole new set of eyes when it comes to this crime that is plaguing our society more than we even think. And it is the children that are paying the highest price. Human trafficking is the trade of humans for the purpose of forced labor, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation for the trafficker or others. The victims are especially women and children, and does not necessarily involve the movement of the person from one place to another. In other words, someone can be trafficked without even leaving Pontotoc County.

“Human trafficking, unfortunately, plays a large part in the increased victimization of our youth, said officer Shermila McKinney. “Sadly, our youth are often the victims of human trafficking and sexual assaults. One in four girls will be sexually assaulted by age 18. One in six boys will be sexually assaulted by age 18. One in three victims of sexual assault are under the age of 18.”

Officer Kory Clowers said the pandemic has led to an increase in this crime. “ People aren't at work, children aren't going to school there is a large trend of absence in work places, schools, churches, and social gatherings.

“It has left many to slip through the cracks. Women who were left jobless were forced into this lifestyle to support their families. School closings causing minors to go places they would not normally go or get involved with people they would not normally associate with. There has also been an increase in depression even in minors who may be seeking to fill a void or live a more fulfilling life. More time at home has caused stress among family members also causing minors to run away,” Clowers said.

“Runaway juveniles are the most targeted victims of human trafficking. They are more susceptible to being coerced into becoming a victim regardless of their social or economic back grounds.”

The root of this crime on our children is the money it earns those who are hounding them.

“Human trafficking is a $150 billion a year global industry focused on exploitation and victimization,” McKinney said. “The internet and social media also play a huge role in the working dynamics of the trafficking industry.”

Clowers pointed out that the women are victims. “While the public may see them as criminals by profession, many did not choose the lifestyle they live. A high percentage were forced into it by one aspect or another. To elaborate on this and put it into a better perspective Human Trafficking is a form of modern day slavery. Human trafficking is a multi-million dollar industry here in the United States and will continue to grow unless we continue to educate the public and get everyone involved,” Clowers said.

McKinney further elaborated, “Around the world, there are an estimated 40.3 million victims trapped in trafficking. American cities have some of the highest numbers of reported human trafficking cases. Law enforcement training is instrumental in helping officers identify victims, learn the tactics of traffickers, and solve cases in order to rescue victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

“Proper training can be the best way to help a trafficked individual with victim advocacy and lead them toward a path of safety and healing,” she said.

Clowers said this training should cover all aspects of police work. “Training is very important when it comes to every aspect of law enforcement but in this specific field it is imperative for investigators as well as patrol level officers to know what to look for,” he noted.

“The signs may appear as domestic violence or drug abuse or even possibly neglect especially when it comes to minors, but that is when it is important for us as law enforcement professionals to dig deeper to ask the right questions to gauge the responses of possibly the abused as well as the abusers. Using our training and experience to determine what the situation is or if a situation even exist is a major part of investigating these crimes.

“The State Attorney General Lynn Fitch has spearheaded training throughout the state of Mississippi to educate law enforcement as well as the general public, and is a major advocate for victims of Human Trafficking.”

And both officers said that the general public is a key to help law enforcement officers in breaking this cycle and ridding our community of it.

“Awareness is essential to assisting in the fight against human trafficking. If you know of someone who may be a trafficking victim, please connect them to law enforcement and other victim services within the community,” McKinney said. “And concerned citizens can obtain more information on trafficking by contacting your local law enforcement where you live.”

Clowers further explained: “Getting our local schools, churches, and other organizations involved and simply letting the public know that Human Trafficking does exist and is closer to home than we want to accept. Making the public aware of the signs of possible or potential trafficking is one of the keys to success in ending human trafficking,” he said.

Clowers went on to explain some of the things the general public can be aware of: “Traffickers usually brand their victims in some fashion, mainly being a tattoo. While tattoos are a big part of society and may be overlooked it helps to know what they mean and if you see the same one on multiple females. Seeing multiple females with one male may just seem like a group of friends but the body language of the females may seem a bit off. Depending on where you see this situation may very well determine whether it is trafficking or not. If you see this at a concert it is highly improbable, if you see this outside of a hotel you may want to call someone.”

He also explained where you can connect people to for help. “The Tower is part of the Mississippi Center for Violence Prevention. The Tower is a safe haven for trafficking victims. The Tower provides education and assistance to victims on every level.”

This facility is located in Jackson, but victims can be connected to it by contacting Clowers or McKinney.

“The ultimate goal of law enforcement training specific to human trafficking is to assist victims, while holding traffickers accountable,” McKinney said. “Law Enforcement Officers take on those perpetrators who prey on society’s most vulnerable. Our goal is to fight against human trafficking and commit to leveraging the tools to target, disrupt, and counter those who engage in human trafficking and the exploitation of others.”

Clowers further explained, “For law enforcement our goal is to rescue victims. To rescue them and get them the help they need whether it be a safe place to live, drug rehabilitation, or counseling. Center for Violence Prevention provides many services for victims and there are also victim advocates working alongside our task forces to ensure that these victims get the care and treatment they need. The secondary goal of course is to make arrests and get convictions.”

And McKinney said that public involvement is the best resource the officers have.

“Everyone can assist in the fight to combat human trafficking. Support law enforcement, take action against traffickers, and promote entities that provide victim services and support can lead to better strides in reducing the number of individuals affected by human trafficking.”

McKinney also noted that anyone can be a victim of trafficking. “We all can learn more about how to recognize the signs of human trafficking, risk factors, and methods of prevention and response.”

Clowers said that the training they received is invaluable. “During this investigation course the class was asked how many man hours and how many dollars is your child's life worth? While most every department throughout this country is understaffed and does not have the resources to battle human trafficking on every level, this question was asked to put us as law enforcement in the public's shoes so to speak.

“These victims are someone's wife, someone's mother, someone's sister, someone's daughter. The answer was very clear and precise on how many hours or dollars they were worth; ‘All of Them’!”

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