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New Minneapolis police approach to juvenile prostitution paying off

The new philosophy treats the juvenile as a victim in need of rescue, rather than as an accomplice in a crime.

A new approach to dealing with juveniles involved in prostitution seems to be paying off for the Minneapolis Police Department.

Since February 2011, 18 juveniles have been rescued from sex trafficking. And 19 defendants have been charged, including 14 for felony sex trafficking, four for hiring a minor for prostitution and one for creating child pornography.

That is “only the tip of the iceberg,” said Sgt. Grant Snyder of the Child Abuse Unit. He has been the only officer assigned to the new program, which focuses on treating the juvenile as a victim in need of rescue, rather than as an accomplice in a crime.

Beginning next week, two more officers from the Juvenile Division will join Snyder to expand the Child Abuse Unit and use of the new approach.

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Snyder explains the new procedure by talking about a 2012 case that started when a grandmother called the Minneapolis Police about a runaway granddaughter. Snyder asked the grandmother to call him if the granddaughter came home. She did.

Snyder then spent two hours talking to the 15-year-old trying to gain her confidence. She admitted to sex trafficking and said she had been a victim and planned to run away again.

He asked her to call him if she ran away again. She ran and subsequently called every day for a month.  Finally she asked him to come pick her up.

“All of our cases are runaways, every single one,” said Snyder, who points out that runaways are at risk of falling into sex trafficking. “Identification of victims is the first priority, so we can rescue more kids.”

When he got to the hotel to pick up the girl who called to be rescued, Snyder found that she was already gone. He tracked her down a week later and found out that she and another teen had been pimped by men who placed an ad on Backpage, an online source offering escort services. The pimps took the money and left the teens drunk in the hotel room.

One of the girls is now back in school. The other is being maintained in placement.

One difference in the new approach is its focus on the victim, who is given as much control as possible in dealing with the police. The message to the victim is that the police are interested in the safety of the juvenile.

“We weren’t asking the right questions before,” said Snyder, who noted the new goal is to “get them to talk to us.”

It is a step away from the traditional vice squad approach of stings and sweeps that rounded up everybody involved in sex crimes and treated everyone as a criminal.

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“The old street vice mentality was if we see a woman out on the corner, we go arrest her,” said Snyder. In that old method, he said, cases involving juveniles were lost in the shuffle.

The new message from the police is that law enforcement is there to protect juveniles, rather than target them for arrest.

“I’ve never met one [juvenile] who thought she had a choice,” said Snyder, who has spent the last 13 years working on this problem. “We recognize this as slavery.”

Police also are making progress in charging sex traffickers.

Earlier this week, a man charged with prostituting two juveniles entered an Alford plea in Ramsey County Court in a case where the juveniles were recruited in Minneapolis. An Alford plea involves the defendant not admitting guilt but acknowledging there is a strong case against him. He faces up to 166 months in prison, Snyder said.