Public Safety Summit
The inaugural event featured Tim Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad, whose organization is partnering with local law enforcement across the U.S. to combat human trafficking.
Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Commissioner of Public Safety Sean Tindell joined together last week to organize the state’s first ever Public Safety Summit.
The Summit served as a three-day resource event for those involved in criminal justice in the Magnolia State. Attendees were able to network, learn, and discuss issues they face on a day-to-day basis. It began on May 8th and was hosted at the Sheraton Flowood’s The Refuge Hotel & Conference Center and featured a variety of speakers.
Experts come from across the public and private sector focused on obstacles within occupations linked to criminal justice, the evolution of the drug culture, domestic violence, cyber-crime, legal issues for law enforcement, and human trafficking.
“The public safety team we have at DPS and the staff at the Attorney General’s office have really come together and pulled off what I think is a great inaugural event and one that I hope will continue for many, many years,” said Commissioner Tindell. “If that is a legacy, I leave it is certainly one I’d be proud of.”
The event also featured the Governor’s Awards Luncheon where Governor Tate Reeves was in attendance to recognize outstanding service within the law enforcement community.
Department of Public Safety (DPS) Commissioner Tindell said the idea for the Summit came as part of a directive to create better communications between local law enforcement and DPS.
“As soon as I took office, I started going around the state meeting with various associations, and really trying to educate and update them on what was going on at the Department of Public Safety at a statewide level and let them know we want to work with them,” said Tindell. “In the course of doing that I realized that they all have their individual assignments and associations, but we never pull all that together and have a public safety summit where we tried to bring first responders from different parts of the state together to discuss issues that affect public safety.”
State agencies team up
The keynote speech at the Summit was given by David M. Cooper, a retired Navy Seal with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. He focused on the best way to build successful teams from the standpoint of how SEALS are trained.
Organizers estimated several hundred individuals were present for the three-day event. Tindell said the response he received from first responders who attended the event has been very positive, adding that many are grateful for the ability to get together and discuss issues that they are seeing across the state.
During the preliminary planning, Tindell learned the Attorney General was planning an event to highlight the impact of human trafficking. The state agencies agreed to cohost the event together and bring additional aspects to the Summit.
“It’s amazing to have everyone together to talk about public safety as we rally to stand strong and united. We know that is how we make more positive strides together,” said Attorney General Fitch. “Having all of the law enforcement, prosecutors, investigators, and advocates altogether sends a strong message.”
Fitch said the summit signified that all levels of the criminal justice system are coming together to find better ways to serve their communities.
Focus on Human Trafficking
Attorney General Fitch, who partnered in the preparation for the event, has been a vocal advocate for victims of human trafficking. The Attorney General’s office houses investigators dedicated to handling crimes related to human trafficking, as well as prosecutors who ensure that perpetrators are held responsible.
In the 2022 Legislative session, a fund was established within the Attorney General’s office to support victims’ services through collecting fees, court fines, and any designated appropriations.
Fitch has reiterated that human trafficking is not only happening in many parts of the world, but also in Mississippi.
The Summit featured a panel of experts who discussed the realities of human trafficking in Mississippi.
Those in attendance also heard from Tim Ballard, the founder of Operation Underground Railroad and the focal point for the documentary “Operation Toussaint.”
“I think the messaging will be very strong tonight, it’ll bring it home and remind people that it is happening to our children and young people,” Fitch said of the viewing of the documentary which event goers participated in on Tuesday.
The documentary centers on Ballard’s life after he left his post as a special agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to form Operation Underground Railroad. The story shows how Ballard and his team went undercover to rescue children who were victims of sex trafficking.
Ballard, who continues this work through his non-profit, Operation Underground Railroad, said it wasn’t until he was sent oversees on assignment that he realized what a massive problem human trafficking really is.
During his time attempting to find Americans who were acting as sex-tourists in other countries, it became increasingly difficult to walk away from an assignment without resolution.
“In 2012, there was one happening in Columbia and one in Haiti where I got so deep that when they told me to come home, I just quit,” said Ballard. “I just said, ‘I’ll find a way to fund it on our own, we have to finish these operations.’”
When the 2012 operations were completed, it resulted in one of the largest human trafficking recoveries ever, with over 160 women and children being recovered.
Operation Underground Railroad: Who are they?
Operation Underground Railroad was launched in the wake of the successful operations abroad. Since then, the organization has grown to over 150 full-time employees. The non-profit also contracts with dozens of people throughout the world and holds offices in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Central and South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe, and the U.S.
The organization provides training, resources, technology and more for law enforcement.
“We exist to empower law enforcement and also, even more important, the after-care services that are required to take those who have been extracted and rescued and heel them,” said Ballard.
Many often believe human trafficking is far away. Ballard said the U.S. is generally number one for demand of child exploitation material. The U.S. also ranks in the top three in destination countries.
“We say, human trafficking has different faces in different places,” said Ballard. He said each country and region has particulars that differentiate the way human trafficking is taking place there.
Ballard and his team work to coordinate and locate all of the tools possible law enforcement may need. He says if they don’t already have it, his non-profit is dedicated to finding it.
Ballard expressed concern for the Southern U.S. border where thousands of undocumented individuals, particularly children in un-investigated situations, are crossing. Ballard called the oversight “tragic.”
How they provide resources
J.C. Holt, Director of Domestic Operations, says Operation Underground Railroad works to interface with police departments specializing in sex crimes. The organization provides resources like training, equipment and funding in order to supplement and assist what law enforcement is already doing.
“We are able to come in and we can fund some of the tools that they need,” said Holt. “Some of the things we do for instance is to provide funding for cutting forensic digital tools that involve digital extraction from devices.”
Holt said these tools can often be applied to electronic storage devices found in the field by an officer. They can contain content that would be used as evidence for an eventual case, such as computer hardware and software.
The organization also has a specialized electronic detection K-9 program. The ESV K-9s are trained to pick up on a chemical scent that is commonly found on electronic storage devices. The organizations funded 71 of these dogs across the U.S. in over 30 states.
One of those K-9s is currently in service in North Mississippi.
“Let’s face it, this is not an issue a lot of people want to talk about. It’s a dark subject, I think it’s very familiar for us all to say – this isn’t happening in my community,” said Holt. “We have just found that to be not true. Most communities seem to have this embedded, its deeper, it’s not surface level and it exposes some of our most vulnerable people.”
Law enforcement officers are often shocked to find out that there is no “catch” to these provided resources, according to Holt. The only request made by Operation Underground Railroad is to hear success stories that can be shared so the mission can continue.
Ballard said over the last 10 years their relationship with law enforcement, particularly in the U.S., has increased exponentially. He said they stand with the local officers and provide the resources they need to fight trafficking in their communities.