When Iowa Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Enforcement Officer Neil Suckow inspects a semi, he looks for typical things such as deflated tires, working brake lights and up-to-date licenses and registration. But as he wraps up each inspection, he calls attention to something different — human trafficking.
Specifically, he brings up domestic sex trafficking, victims of which include minors involved in commercial sex and adults coerced into prostitution. Drivers may encounter victims at the state's motels, restaurants and truck stops.
As the “eyes and ears of the road,” Suckow tells the drivers he talks with they can help spot potential victims and send tips to law enforcement.
They can look out for things such as young girls at truck stops in the middle of the night or a single man checking several girls into motel rooms. They can look for people in distress or other suspicious activity.
“Believe it or not, you guys can really help us in this situation,” Suckow told a driver during an inspection Jan. 5. “That's why Iowa is trying to push this.”
He ended by giving the driver a wallet card with a national hotline number and information about human trafficking. Officers in his department hand out hundreds of these cards each week to drivers from all 48 continental states as they pass through Iowa. “These guys are out on the road more than we are,” Suckow said. “They see a lot of things compared to the general public.”
The Iowa model
The conversations and wallet cards are part of a partnership between the Office of Motor Vehicle Enforcement and national organization Truckers Against Trafficking, an organization that educates truck drivers on how to fight human trafficking.
Since the initiative started in fall 2013, Truckers Against Trafficking's leaders have been so impressed with its impact that they have begun rolling out the “Iowa model” in 11 other states. They also asked Chief of Motor Vehicle Enforcement Dave Lorenzen to join their national board.
“It's fantastic to see how Iowa has really set the standard for the rest of the nation on this,” Truckers Against Trafficking Executive Director Kendis Paris said.
When Lorenzen first heard about the initiative in 2013, he started out simply by distributing the wallet cards. Momentum quickly grew from there.
His officers interact with truck drivers from across the country on a daily basis, and he realized that could be a perfect way to educate drivers.
“I've been in law enforcement for 36 years. In law enforcement, you want to do something good for mankind,” he said. “When I saw this I thought, you know, this is a natural fit. I thought, boy, just think of the possibilities.”
Today, all his 130 officers and investigators are involved with efforts to spread Truckers Against Trafficking's message.
They talk with every driver they encounter and put educational materials in Iowa's 11 weigh stations and 41 rest areas. Lorenzen and his staff have talked to trucking companies, truck stop managers, community colleges and civic organizations.
The Truckers Against Trafficking logo and the national hotline is displayed prominently on the department's website.
Last year, his office hosted a coalition-building meeting and invited all law enforcement agencies along the Interstate 80 and 35 corridors to a training event. More recently, Lorenzen recruited the director of the drivers services office, and now each time someone renews or gets a new Commercial Drivers License, that person also receives a wallet card.
“Basically any way we could, as often as we could, we've worked to get the message out to people not only in the industry but all throughout the state,” Lorenzen said. “Anybody who sees anything can call that hotline.”
Suckow said some of the drivers he encounters are familiar with human trafficking and the issues involved, but most are not. Many have never thought of prostitution as a potential form of human trafficking, he said.
Statistics on how many people are trafficked in Iowa are hard to come by because the crime is underreported. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which operates the national hotline, has taken 379 tips that refer to Iowa since 2007. Those tips have led to 82 cases being opened by law enforcement.
“Here in Iowa, we sometimes do forget this is a problem,” Suckow said. “The more eyes we can get out there and open to this, the more of a chance there is we're going to alter someone's life in a good way.”