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Vestavia Hills is a city in the state of Alabama that occupies parts of both Jefferson and Shelby counties. It is a suburb of Birmingham and its population is roughly 39,000. Prostitution activity has been well-documented in the city and surrounding communities, and in unincorporated areas of both Jefferson and Shelby counties. For example, in a 2015 report, local police said the crime wass happening everywhere, in every community, and every city in the region. A local news station, WIAT 42 News, rode along with the Birmingham Police Department’s Vice Narcotics Team as they sent undercover detectives out to arrest prostituted persons and the people who paid them. Police then started examining areas outside Birmingham’s city limits by contacting other police departments. Officials found that the Homewood Police Department had made 29 prostitution arrests since 2011, the Vestavia Police Department arrested 14 people for prostitution in 2014, and in the prior month, the Hoover Police Department had arrested three women in an undercover sting at a hotel. They also noted that websites were filled with ads for escorts from all over the area, including Birmingham, Homewood, Hoover, Vestavia and other areas.
Consumer-level demand provides the revenue stream for all prostitution and sex trafficking, and has therefore been targeted by local law enforcement agencies in their strategy for prevention and response. To combat the array of problems stemming from commercial sex, local law enforcement agencies have conducted reverse stings. Beginning in September 2018, the Shelby County Drug Enforcement Task Force conducted the first of what was to become a six part series of demand reduction stings called “Operation Close Out,” which resulted in the arrest of eleven male sex buyers from the Birmingham metro-area. One of the offenders resided in Vestavia Hills. Identities, photos, ages, locations, and charges of arrested offenders were included in reports by local news sources. In February 2019, Vestavia Hills police and the FBI participated in a reverse sting operation led by the Homewood Police Department’s Vice and Narcotics Unit. The operation was conducted in response to complaints received about hotels and motels along the Oxmoor Road and Lakeshore Parkway exits off Interstate 65. The operation involved undercover officers responding to social media and internet adds soliciting sexual activity for payment. As a result of the investigation, five individuals were arrested on various prostitution-related charges, two men were arrested on charges of promotion of prostitution, and one victim of sex trafficking was recovered. Identities, ages, locations, and charges of arrested offenders were included in reports by local news sources.
Public Education, Neighborhood Action
Vestavia Hills became the first city in the state of Alabama to become a TraffickingFree Zone. The TraffickingFree Zone program was an initiative of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT), that utilized a partnership with local anti-trafficking coalition, Child Trafficking Solutions Project (CTSP), to facilitate staff trainings and grassroots community outreach. The Child Trafficking Solutions Project was a coalition consisting of over 100 anti-trafficking organizations and stakeholders from the Birmingham metropolitan area, that through common-goal initiatives aimed at creating systematic change that disrupts demand combats sex trafficking. The coalition was under the direction of the Children’s Policy Council of Jefferson County. The proclamation required all city staff to be trained on how to safely spot and report instances of human trafficking. According to City Mayor Ashley Curry, from July 2019 to November 2019, the state of Alabama reported 49 human trafficking arrests, with 17 of them coming from Vestavia Hills. Further, she explained why human trafficking is so prevalent in the Birmingham metro-area:
“But it’s not just a problem in Vestavia Hills, it’s the whole metro Birmingham area. In fact, I-20 and I-65, that happens to cross at Birmingham, those interstates are known as the superhighway for sex trafficking.”
In order to become a TraffickingFree Zone, organizations must abide by a four step plan:
- Sign Proclamation or Pledge
- Enact Policy Changes
- Share Publicly
According to Jordan Gidden, a human trafficking survivor that now works with CTSP, Vestavia Hills is abiding by the required steps, “There’s three actionable items: One, they have to sign the actual proclamation proclaiming the city a traffic-free zone similar to a drug free zone. It doesn’t mean that trafficking doesn’t happen here, it means they are taking it seriously. Two, they have to train all of their city staff. And, three they have to adopt a zero tolerance policy for purchasing sex at work. That goes along with the data that we found that the number one time people purchase sex is 3:00 p.m. at work and we’re looking for ways to curb the demand.” In addition, Gidden stated that education would begin expanding to other communities within the city beyond city officials, such as medical personnel and grassroot organizations.
In 2021, the City of Vestavia Hills reported seeing positive results since becoming a TraffickingFree Zone. For example, in February 2020, the Vestavia Hills Police Department successfully recovered four children from human trafficking in addition to arresting the man suspected of trafficking them. In addition, Captain Johnny Evans with the Vestavia Hills Police Department stated that without the training the police department received as a result of becoming a TraffickingFree Zone in November 2019, officers might not have been able to identify what was happening. Further, the city continued to provide virtual training classes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for city officials, individuals working in the school system, and general community members.
Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:
- https://www.cbs42.com/cbs-42-investigates/sex-crimes-prostitution-a-growing-concern-jefferson-county (2015)
- https://www.wvtm13.com/article/prostitution-sting-in-homewoodal (2019)
Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:
- https://www.facebook.com/dtfshelbyal/posts/eleven-johns-arrested-in-reverse-prostitution-sting (2018)
- https://www.cbs42.com/news/11-arrested-in-undercover-reverse-arrest-prostitution-sting (2018)
Public Education, Neighborhood Action: