NEWARK ― Local law enforcement and academia leaders converged at the Department of Homeland Security's office on Wednesday to explain a joint effort between Montclair State University and the department's law enforcement arm to combat human trafficking in New Jersey.
The top priority of the joint effort is to develop an app and website that will educate law enforcement agencies on human trafficking, a severely underreported crime that can be difficult to identify.
A memorandum of understanding was signed by Ricky Patel, the special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigation's Newark office, and Montclair State President Jonathan Koppell.
"I'm pleased to be here today to highlight this forging relationship with [the university] by growing our shared goal," Patel said, "to end human trafficking together with academia and law enforcement."
Homeland Security Investigations is the chief law enforcement arm of DHS. Human trafficking falls under the wide umbrella of transnational crimes that it investigates. Montclair State is home to the Global Center on Human Trafficking, which works with survivors to "transform the response to human trafficking," according to the center's About Us page.
"[Human trafficking] is a very complex crime," Global Center on Human Trafficking Director Ali Boak said Wednesday. "You often can't identify it with one meeting of a situation. It often takes a lot of intelligence, a lot of investigation, a lot of interviewing. The idea behind this project is to put the education and awareness tools at the fingertips of law enforcement."
The Record and NorthJersey.com published a series in 2022 exploring the issue of human trafficking in New Jersey including how it's combated in the state and the complexities around it.
The app, which Boak says will hopefully be available to law enforcement later this year, will contain short educational videos, including best practices for interviewing trafficking victims and survivors, or how to collect evidence in a human trafficking investigation.
The app will also include contact information for different sources to aid law enforcement, particularly at the local level.
The app will first be made available to law enforcement agencies, but could become accessible to the general public, Boak said.
"We are a university that exists to serve the public good," Koppell said, explaining the new partnership. "We are a university that exists to advance the well-being of the people of New Jersey and beyond."
Other key state law enforcement members were in attendance. Phillip Sellinger, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, state police Col. Pat Callahan, Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stevens, Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez and Newark Public Safety Director Fritz Fragé all spoke at the press conference before the signing.
It's rare that human trafficking cases result in a criminal conviction because the vast majority go unreported. But Callahan noted that law enforcement's role goes beyond just securing a conviction.
"That trauma just doesn't end with an arrest or a successful prosecution," he said. "We need to surround these victims ... the understanding that the compassion, the caring has to go along with it."
Getting trafficking victims, who often come from marginalized and preyed upon communities, to trust law enforcement can be a challenge. Some victims don't even realize they are being trafficked. That's where the Global Center on Human Trafficking comes in.
"We're about empowering and supporting survivors to work hand-in-hand with us as thought partners," Boak said. "Partners in the way we respond to and address this issue."
Treia Boozier is a young human trafficking survivor. She spoke candidly Wednesday about her experience as a foster child who ran away from home and was preyed on at age 16 by someone she thought cared about her. She now works as an advocate with the center.
Boozier's trafficker was brought to justice, due in large part to her cooperation with law enforcement.
Boozier, now 23, said the center allows her to use her voice in order to make a living. She speaks at schools and other smaller groups, educating people on the risks of human trafficking. Speaking from her own experience, she noted that as a gay, Black girl growing up in foster care made her especially vulnerable.
In 2019, Boozier spoke at the Department of Justice's National Youth Summit in Austin, Texas. Recently she was featured on a radio show on Voices of America.
"No one knows human trafficking like a survivor," Boozier said. "When you look at me, you don't see a survivor, you see a person. But behind me there is a story."
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Human trafficking in NJ target of Montclair State partnership