With Toronto becoming the hub of human trafficking in the province, the Toronto Police Service has become a leader in investigating this serious crime and violation of human rights, says Deputy Chief James Ramer.
He was a guest speaker at a TPS Human Trafficking Conference on March 21 at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre.
Nearly 300 high school students, from across the city, attended the one-day event supported by a provincial Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services grant.
“Human trafficking is a very challenging issue that affects everyone in society,” said Ramer. “We need as much co-ordination as possible between police, prosecutors and, most importantly, social service agencies that work with victims. This is a domestic problem that is occurring right here in Toronto and we need to work together to support those who are victimized by it.”
In June 2014, the TPS Sex Crimes Unit created a dedicated team of investigators to focus on human trafficking.
“This is a human trafficking enforcement team and they changed the approach to human trafficking investigations by being proactive and tackling the problem head-on from an investigative perspective,” Ramer said. “They focus their efforts on the most vulnerable victims who are under 18 years old and those traffickers who exploit them.”
He said the team dealt with 67 victims in 2016 and 61 per cent of them were 16 and younger.
“This involved engaging in special projects and undercover operations to gather evidence against traffickers and prosecute them in court,” said Ramer. “The evidence was used to support the victims’ statements and testimony in court.”
Prior to 2014, there was just one conviction in a Toronto court for a human-trafficking specific offence. In the last two years, over 20 traffickers have been convicted.
“Offenders have been sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment, four to 13 years, in most recent cases,” said Ramer.
While the average age victims are recruited by traffickers is 14, the TPS human trafficking enforcement team has encountered victims as young as 12.
“It’s important to recognize that traffickers don’t discriminate,” added Ramer. “Anyone can be a victim.”
Starting with five dedicated officers, three years ago, the human trafficking team has grown to 14, the largest in any Canadian police service.
Sex Crimes unit commander Inspector Pauline Gray told the students that each one of them has the ability to stop a very important person from getting involved in human trafficking.
“That person is you and that’s just the beginning,” she said. “You can educate your friends through social media and just old-fashioned talking. Your collective voices can affect those in institutions of higher learning and even influence governments. You have the power to eliminate human trafficking in your generation. Please be part of it.”
Jennifer Richardson, the director of the newly formed Human Trafficking Strategy for Ontario, also welcomed the students.
“I am glad that you are here because you are the people that, if you have the information, have the power and ability to keep yourself safe,” she said.
Detectives Dave Correa and Rob Heitzner talked to the students about some of the tactics traffickers use to lure victims into their stable.
“We are in love, we are going to get married and you are going to have a condo” are some of the lies they tell their victims,” said Heitzner. “Those are lies. Often, it is about matters of the heart before the tactics escalate to violence.”
Detectives Sammy Cruz and Aaron Korth of the Los Angeles Police Department and Detective Lieutenant Dominic Monchamp of the Montreal Police Department also spoke at the conference.