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January 22, 2012

Cab drivers enlisted to combat sex-trafficking at the Super Bowl

Training is part of plan to show hospitality

INDIANAPOLIS — Hundreds of Indianapolis cab drivers being trained in how to show Hoosier hospitality for soon-to-arrive Super Bowl fans are also learning how to recognize sex workers brought in for the event.

The cab drivers are part of a larger group of hotel, restaurant and other service workers in Indianapolis being asked to help identify potential victims of the commercial sex-trafficking industry.

Driving the effort is the National Football League championship game that will be played in Indianapolis on Feb. 5, and all the alcohol- and sex-infused parties and events that transform the game into a week-long spectacle. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller has said the Super Bowl is the largest sex-trafficking event in the nation.

In recent weeks, more than 700 cab drivers have taken part in the “Super Service” hospitality training offered by staff and volunteers with the Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee. It includes a session on sex-trafficking and the fast-tracked legislation aimed at cracking down on the crime.

“Whenever there’s a large event like the Super Bowl, we know there’s an increase in sex trafficking,” said Valerie Schmitt, coordinator of a human-trafficking outreach effort in Indianapolis. “There’s an increased demand for [commercial] sex and that leads to an increased risk that someone will be victimized.”

On Friday, as a House committee heard testimony on a bill that would ramp up criminal penalties for sex-traffickers in Indiana, Schmitt was meeting with about 100 cab drivers to ask for their help.

She described some of the classic victims of sex-traffickers, including illegal immigrants forced to work off their debts by working as prostitutes or teenagers sexually exploited by adults. She predicted Indianapolis will see an influx of prostitutes, including many who are underage.

“You’re our eyes and our ears ...”  she told them. “You meet a lot of people and overhear a lot of conversations that might be helpful in recognizing someone involved in [sex] trafficking.”

She asked them to put the human-trafficking hotline phone number of 888-373-7888 into their cells phones and use it if they suspect anything. Some of the cab drivers looked skeptical; while others pulled out their cell phones to program in the number.

Tim Neville, operations manager for Indianapolis Yellow Cab, the city’s largest cab service, said more than 150 of his drivers had been through “Super Service” training that includes the session on sex trafficking.

“I think it’s great,” Neville said. “This is our community; we live here and want to protect it. Our drivers know how to balance a passenger’s expectation of some anonymity with what could be criminal activity.”

Local prosecutors are counting on having a new law to combat the crime. During a House committee hearing Friday, Marion County deputy prosecutor Mary Hutchinson spoke in favor of legislation, authored by Republican Sen. Randy Head of Logansport, that would enact harsher penalties for sex traffickers. The committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full House for a vote, but that action came after the hearing had been delayed two hours.

The delay was caused by House Democrats who boycotted the session’s morning quorum call to prevent a vote on the Republican-backed right-to-work legislation that would outlaw mandatory union dues for private-sector workers.

The House has been out of session seven days over the last three weeks because of the boycott. House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer said Friday that he expects House Democrats will return to the House floor Monday.

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