Streamlined Human Trafficking Unit busier than ever

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than a year ago, Austin police bosses disbanded, then reformed, the department’s Human Trafficking and Vice Unit. Its caseload is up, according to the sergeant overseeing the team.

Eight detectives and three officers are currently working as many as 200 cases. The increased caseload is attributed to a higher number of dedicated staff and a higher level of public awareness in reporting sex abuse incidents. In 2013, just seven detectives worked sex trafficking and prostitution cases in Austin.

“It’s way up. Actual human trafficking cases represent about 20 percent of what we do,” said Sgt. Bob Miljenovich, acknowledging other casework involves curbing adult prostitution and illegal gambling operations in the city.

In the fall of 2013, Miljenovich tells KXAN he applied for and was selected to lead a diverse group of officers. They include some with experience in child abuse and others from victim services or APD’s missing persons unit. For the first time, there is an officer dedicated to both state and federal task forces working to end online child exploitation.

The goal has been to rebuild the unit with a focus on rescuing vulnerable young victims caught up in in sex-related crimes at the hands of adults.

“(Kids as young as nine) are more vulnerable to individuals that prey on those vulnerabilities, to get them involved in sex trafficking. Whether they’re trying to get acceptance or what they think is love from (adult) individuals,” Miljenovich told KXAN last fall.

As KXAN reported in November 2014, APD’s Human Trafficking Unit is now teaming up with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office to get those children into trauma-based counseling, along with help for addictions and other issues. Their traffickers are being prosecuted under tougher state laws.

Overhaul was Division-wide

The Human Trafficking and Vice Unit was part of an overhaul of the Organized Crime Division in the summer and fall of 2013 that saw more than a dozen officers and detectives moved to other units. Eighteen of those male officers are currently involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the City of Austin for claims of age and race-based discrimination. It was filed this past July after a complaint to the Texas Workforce Commission was dismissed, but was cleared to proceed to other legal venues. The youngest officer named as a plaintiff in the suit is 39; the oldest is 57. Three of the 18 have since retired according to a recent City of Austin employee list. Court records show the next Civil District Court hearing in that discrimination suit is Jan. 9, 2015.

APD’s Organized Crime Division is now comprised of several units. Human Trafficking and Vice as well as cases involving online child exploitation are under one investigative ‘tent.’ Various levels of narcotics investigations fall under another. There are also two anti-gang/safe streets units, two illegal firearms teams and a highway K-9 interdiction team dedicated to human smuggling and other related crimes. Most the units work closely with state and federal task forces and some derive part of their funding from those sources.

Bermudez suit lists no names

No former Human Trafficking Unit detectives are listed by name in a new lawsuit filed Monday against the City of Austin by Det. Brenda Bermudez. But it states by November 2013, seven months after she filed a sexual harassment complaint with Internal Affairs, the Human Trafficking and Vice team was disbanded. That shakeup included Bermudez. Since no one received unpaid days off, there is no public record of anyone being disciplined for harassment, unprofessional conduct or any other policy issue.

The Austin Police Police Manual outlines procedures for employees alleging sexual harassment and states, ‘The Austin Police Department is committed to creating and maintaining a work environment that is free of all forms of discrimination and intimidation, including sexual harassment. The Department will take preventive, corrective and disciplinary action for any behavior that violates this policy or the rights and privileges it is designed to protect.’

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