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WUSF's coverage of Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Feb. 7, 2021.

Officials Crack Down On Human Trafficking As Super Bowl Comes To Tampa

A digital sign hangs in an airport, showing an advertisement to combat human trafficking
Emily Nipps
Tampa International Airport
Signage at Tampa International Airport helps inform travelers of resources available to combat human trafficking.

Part of the effort to stop human trafficking involves training commercial truckers, hotel staff and Uber drivers to recognize victims.

The Super Bowl traditionally has been known to attract human traffickers, so as Tampa gears up for the big game on Sunday, local and state officials are taking steps to crack down on sexual exploitation.

Law enforcement agencies in Tampa and across the state are working with community organizations and Hillsborough County officials to help people recognize signs of human trafficking and how to report it.

Officials say the Super Bowl can be a magnet for human trafficking because it’s an event that attracts a large concentration of people to a relatively confined urban area.

At the state level, Attorney General Ashley Moody is working with truck drivers and hotel staff to spot potential victims.

Moody’s office also partnered with Uber, teaching drivers to look out for people who appear afraid, anxious or are speaking as if they are being coached.

Locally, the Hillsborough County Commission on Human Trafficking brought together key stakeholders, including survivors, to prepare an awareness campaign for the event.

The campaign includes using imaging, social media and plain language to get the word out. Large signs have been placed at Tampa International Airport to help inform the public about the risk of human trafficking.

“There's a great deal of signage in the airport, bringing it to people's attention,” said County Commissioner Kimberly Overman, Chair of the Commission on Human Trafficking. “So as people travel to Hillsborough County and to the city of Tampa, I think it's important that people understand that if they’re in a dangerous situation, they can reach out for that.”

The commission is also connecting victims of human trafficking to healthcare centers, advocacy groups and other peer networks.

For example, it's partnering with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay to help coordinate resources for victims to deal with the effects of human trafficking.

“It is those strong peer networks that truly the commission has helped reenergize and bring together to create a system of care for those individuals who have been trafficked,” said Clara Reynolds, the President and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. “I think that's one of the great things that the commission has done, to bring all of us together, quilting a true safety net for those individuals so that they can move forward again.”

Both Overman and Reynolds pushed back against the notion that the Super Bowl is the top event in the country for human traffickers, noting that trafficking happens every day even without an event. But research has identified the movement of victims and marketing trends that correspond with the build up to the Super Bowl.

In the week leading up to last year’s Super Bowl in Miami, authorities arrested 44 people on charges related to sex trafficking and rescued 22 victims.

This year, Tampa authorities are preparing for more arrests. So far, at least 71 individuals have been arrested as part of “Operation Interception" conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

“Part of the reason the arrests and the rescues are occurring around the Super Bowl is because there’s a focus on it,” Overman said. “Not because it happens at the Super Bowl any more than it does at any other large event. Because the NFL has really made a commitment to fight this, they’ve partnered with local communities and law enforcement to really put eyes on and, as a consequence of that, there’s many more arrests than you might see normally.”

According to the Human Trafficking Hotline, 896 cases were reported in Florida in 2019. That makes the state the third highest for reported human trafficking cases, behind only California and Texas.

“We know that human trafficking is something that is an absolute reality in our community,” Reynolds said, “Not just focused on Feb. 7, but beyond.”

To report suspected victimization, text CTYTIP to 847411 or download the mobile phone app by searching “Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force” in any app store.

Victims should dial 211 to be connected with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. If the situation is urgent or dangerous, victims should dial 911.

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.