RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginia State Police is increasing education and enforcement around human trafficking.

On Monday, VSP kicked off “Operation Safe Passage,” a public outreach initiative that will continue through Wednesday, April 20 at various truck stops, motor carrier service centers and rest areas across the state. 

“People don’t necessarily know what it looks like. It can fly under the radar so this is to bring awareness,” said Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Robert Mosier. 

Mosier said raising awareness is one key component of an executive order Governor Glenn Youngkin signed on his first day in office to combat human trafficking. The order directed the creation of the “Human Trafficking Prevention and Survivor Support Commission.” The group of stakeholders is expected to issue an interim report on best practices by Sept. 1, 2022.

At a rest stop in Caroline County, state troopers passed out brochures defining human trafficking and explaining various warning signs to help the public recognize the problem. 

The crime generally occurs when victims are exploited through force, fraud or coercion into sex trafficking or forced labor. 

VSP Superintendent Colonel Gary Settle said victims tend to be children or vulnerable adults. He said some victims are from Virginia, but others may travel across state and national borders. 

Settle said they may appear fearful, confused, isolated or submissive. He said they may also have visible bruising at different stages of healing or appear to be deprived of food, water, sleep or medical care. 

U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Resident Agent in Charge Brett Kolb said human trafficking can happen anywhere but the problem tends to be more prevalent around cities and along high-traffic interstates. 

“We can’t do this alone. We absolutely have to have the public’s cooperation and awareness,” Kolb said. “The biggest factor in having a good prosecution is the timeliness of reporting.” 

The Virginia Trucking Association is engaging in the effort by asking their members to look out for warning signs on the road, according to VTA President and CEO Dale Bennett.

“Truck drivers are the eyes and ears out on our highways and this industry has a duty to do anything we can to report anything suspicious that we see happening,” Bennett said. 

Settle said reports of human trafficking are increasing in Virginia,  which may be due to an increase in awareness. He said VSP is trying to improve data collection to get a better sense of the problem and where resources need to be allocated. 

Youngkin’s executive order cites data from Polaris, a nonprofit resource and advocacy center combating human trafficking. The group said there were 179 cases of trafficking and 77 traffickers identified in Virginia in 2019 alone.

Settle said VSP is also focused on increasing enforcement. He said they’re in the process of creating a new unit with more officers solely focused on human trafficking. 

Youngkin’s order calls for additional steps, including seeking jail time as opposed to fines for those who solicit prostitution. It also aims to facilitate collaboration with social media companies to fight trafficking on their platforms and to increase the targeting of “illicit massage businesses” by leveraging partnerships. 

The order further seeks to empower survivors by increasing access to mental health resources, education and housing. 

“There is more attention and there is more motivation to cure this problem than I’ve ever seen in my 37 years,” Settle said.