The first clue may come via a knock on the door of a semitrailer cab, or the sight of a van load of frightened young women at a rest area. And the first person to notice anything may be a truck driver.
An Iowa initiative seeks to enlist truckers’ help, because such situations could signal human trafficking. The hope is that a trucker, or someone else, will call authorities and the incident will end with a pimp in jail and human trafficking victims getting help from social services.
Iowa’s Office of Motor Vehicle Enforcement is joining with Truckers Against Trafficking to place the Colorado-based nonprofit’s fliers, stickers and posters at truck stops and rest areas and to hand them out during vehicle inspections and traffic stops.
The state agency enforces state and federal commercial vehicle regulations, so its staff comes in contact with thousands of truck drivers each year.
And truck drivers, because they are on the road so much, are more likely than most to witness signs of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is the illegal movement of people under threats of violence or other coercion, often for sex work.
One Truckers Against Trafficking poster, put up at truck stops and rest areas in western Iowa, sums it up: “Everyday Heroes Needed.”
“We live in the middle of the country, and we think we’re immune to some of the issues,” said Dave Lorenzen, chief of Motor Vehicle Enforcement for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
But “the nature of human trafficking is that it’s a very mobile enterprise, so they are moving up and down and traversing the highways of our state.”
Iowa officials can’t point to a direct link between their education efforts and any arrests. But they cite the example of an Iowa woman who was being trafficked across the country and was rescued after a truck driver called authorities.
In January, Florida trucker Kevin Kimmel was at a Virginia truck stop when he saw a distraught-looking young woman in the darkened window of an RV. She then disappeared from view, as if someone had yanked her away.
Kimmel called police, leading to the freeing of the 20-year-old woman. The Clive couple who had kidnapped, trafficked, tortured and sold her for sex were arrested and later sentenced to four decades each in prison.
“That’s why we’re so committed to this,” said Sgt. Kevin Killpack of Iowa Motor Vehicle Enforcement. “It’s because lives matter, and we can make a difference.”
A small percentage of human trafficking occurs at truck stops and rest areas, officials said, but with truck drivers numbering in the millions and their jobs mobile in nature, drivers are well positioned to come across it.
The posters list a phone number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, (888) 373-7888. In the first half of the year, 126 truckers called that number, said Kendis Paris, executive director of Truckers Against Trafficking.
Motor Vehicle Enforcement and other Iowa law enforcement agencies were tasked with combating trafficking by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller in 2012. Miller created the Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative, said Mike Ferjak, who directs the initiative.
The initiative involves training for law enforcement and social service agencies that deal with human trafficking, in addition to public education.
As Lorenzen reviewed the nonprofit’s materials, he realized his agency could make a difference. In Iowa, Motor Vehicle Enforcement falls under the Department of Transportation, as do driver’s license stations and Interstate rest stops.
He came up with a plan: Officers could hand out educational pamphlets during a traffic stop or when a driver comes in to get or renew a commercial driver’s license. He also decided to put the information in rest stops and truck stops. Truckers are given stickers to put in the windows of their rigs.
Said Lorenzen: “I have children. I have grandchildren. Those are potential victims of human trafficking.”
He worked with Paris and told her of his plans in phone calls and emails.
“The more he came up with ideas, the more I said, ‘Chief, you have to write this down,’ ” Paris said. “ ‘You’re creating a model other states can follow.’ ”
Lorenzen and his agency put what’s become known as the Iowa Model into motion. Truckers Against Trafficking shared the plan with other states, and the idea was soon adopted by Ohio and Michigan. Thirteen other states, including California, Minnesota and Missouri, have adopted parts of the plan.
Nebraska isn’t yet among the states, though.
Capt. Gerry Krolikowski, commander of the Carrier Enforcement Division of the Nebraska State Patrol, said he and other patrol officials attended a presentation given by Lorenzen in May and might adopt some of Iowa’s methods.
“We certainly have not reached (Iowa’s) level of education to our trucking industry,” he said. “We certainly applaud them for that.”
Nebraska also is building a human trafficking task force similar to what Iowa has done, said Stephen Patrick O’Meara, the recently hired human trafficking coordinator for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.
“I don’t think people want to believe it happens here in the heartland,” O’Meara said. “And if they hear it happens in Nebraska, they don’t want to hear it happens outside of Omaha. But it does.”
Mike Pruismann, 58, of Webster City, Iowa, said he was given a card to put in his wallet by a motor vehicle officer who stopped him last year in Stanhope. He keeps the card in his logbook.
“I’d pull over and get on my phone and call that if I’d seen something really suspicious,” Pruismann said. “We have enough problems in the world.”