GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Last year, grant funding allowed the Kent County Sheriff’s Office to launch a task force focused on human trafficking. Now, deputies are continuing to make headway by locating a number of victims and accused traffickers.

Human trafficking is considered the world’s second most profitable criminal enterprise. In February of 2022, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office announced a task force to address the issue at a local level.

“The extent at this point is even unknown. However, it is something that is critical,” Undersheriff Chuck DeWitt said. “It could be a neighbor, it could be a friend, it could be a family member.”

While exactly how much human trafficking is occurring is a question mark, it happens in many forms that range from labor trafficking to crime.

“They may be associated with prostitution, they may be associated with thefts or drugs,” DeWitt said.

This year, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office’s Human Trafficking Task Force has led to the arrest of nine people. Eight were arrested in August after an undercover sting along the 28th Street corridor in Cascade Township. The suspects were charged with solicitation for prostitution at an area hotel. Half of the eight defendants have pleaded guilty or have plea hearings this week. The remainder of the cases are pending.

In an unrelated case in July, Jeremy Byl of Walker was charged with transporting a prostitute, among other charges.

“In any investigation, once a victim or a suspect has been identified, it always leads to the possibility of identifying other victims or other suspects,” DeWitt said. “It is very much like a spider web where one leads to another.”

The task force has also identified more than 30 victims of human trafficking. All but one of the victims are women and their ages range from 25 to 59 years old.

DeWitt says victims are often found while investigating a crime they may have committed as a result of being trafficked.

“That’s what one of the components of the grant is targeted at, which is educating law enforcement to look beyond that surface-level crime to see if that person is a victim of human trafficking,” DeWitt said.

After identifying victims, the next step is connecting them with resources they may need.

“So, that they can live outside organized effort, that quite honestly they’re trying to rely upon in order to survive,” DeWitt said.

Nikeidra Battle-DeBarge has worked to support people in West Michigan impacted by human trafficking and raise awareness of the problem for years. She says human trafficking has the potential to affect anyone.

“It impacts children, boys and girls, women and men. So, trafficking doesn’t necessarily have a face when you talk about gender, when you talk about socioeconomics,” Battle-DeBarge said.

Battle-DeBarge said it’s also vital to stop trafficking before it occurs.

“What are we doing to work with our youth to make sure they understand their value and what it means to be manipulated and taken advantage of,” Battle-DeBarge said. “Educators and parents, and community-wide, we have to know what our place is in supporting individuals who are vulnerable.”

If you suspect that you’ve seen human trafficking, you’re encouraged to contact the Kent County Sheriff’s Office.