More than 200 law enforcement officers from throughout New England are expected in Springfield, Massachusetts tomorrow to discuss strategies for combating gangs, drug dealing, and human trafficking.
Gangs use social media and smartphone apps to try to stay one step ahead of the police, so how law enforcement can make use of the same communication technology to keep tabs on gang activity is just one of several presentations planned at the conference.
About 250 people have registered to attend the daylong event, which is not open to the public. Participants include local police officers, prosecutors, parole, probation, and corrections officials.
The Gang Intelligence and Investigating Conference is organized by Nicholas Cotto, an instructor at the New England Police Academy, who has been a consultant to local police departments on gangs and youth violence for several years.
A frequent lecturer on how street gangs recruit and operate, Cotto told an earlier conference by the Mayor’s Violence Prevention Task Force in Springfield that it is a very difficult challenge to keep children growing up in poverty out of gang life.
" Give kids resources to better themselves and let them know they belong to something, or the streets take over and that's when you lose them," he advised parents, educators, and social workers gathered at that earlier event.
He also warned that human trafficking of young girls into the sex trade is on the rise in Springfield.
" It is local gangs, not national ones, recruiting these young girls," he said.
Law enforcement is not alone in combating human trafficking in greater Springfield. A Catholic women’s religious order has been focused on the issue locally for almost a decade.
Sister Denise Granger said the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Justice and Peace Committee first began to try to raise public awareness about human trafficking in 2005.
" The thing that really kicked it off was when Springfield was going to open a casino and open a brand new bus station," said Granger. " Bus stations are notorious hubs for runaways and spotters who be interested in trafficking those runaways."
Granger said Catholic religious orders have a long history around the world of working to assist victims of human trafficking.
She said a majority of victims do not end up in the sex trade, but are forced into labor in areas including agriculture, manufacturing, domestic servitude, and door-to-door sales.
" There's a really long list of areas where this can happen," she said.
Granger and the other members of the committee, Sister Roberta Mulcahy, Springfield attorney Margot Eckert, and retired Springfield Police Captain Lee Bennett were recognized for their work at this month’s International Women’s Day ceremony hosted by the Springfield Women’s Commission.
Commission Chairwoman and Springfield City Councilor Kateri Walsh praised their work to defend human rights.
" They have a very difficult task," said Walsh. " I noticed at the National Conference for Women Legislators that ( human trafficking) is a big topic across the country. You don't think it is where you live, but it is everywhere."
The Justice and Peace Committee is planning its own conference in September on the topic of human trafficking.