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The Derby weekend human trafficking bust, explained

In the past 24 hours, with many Louisvillians still recovering from the weekend’s doubly wet Derby festivities, local TV news consumers have been confronted with a story about the darker side effects of the annual Run for the Roses — namely, human trafficking.

“LMPD makes multiple arrests during human trafficking sting,” read WLKY’s headline. “7 arrested on human trafficking charges by LMPD as part of undercover operation,” declared WDRB. “Several busted during sex trafficking sting,” reported WHAS.

And, just Monday afternoon, WAVE3 reminded viewers “Suspects arrested in Derby weekend human trafficking crackdown.” (And in the lead-up to Derby, local media was inundated with stories about Derby’s apparent problem with human trafficking, as well.)

If you only went by those TV news headlines (and, statistically speaking, you probably do), then you might think that the Louisville Metro Police Department busted an actual human trafficking ring over The Derby weekend. Except they didn’t.

According to arrest citations, LMPD arrested seven men — all Kentucky residents — over the weekend. They were charged with “unlawful use of electronic means … to induce a minor to engage in sexual or other prohibited activities” and “promoting human trafficking.” The latter violates Kentucky’s inaugural 2007 human trafficking law. Both charges are felonies in Kentucky.

LMPD Sgt. Tim Stokes said in a statement to Insider Louisville that the men responded to online advertisements posted to two different websites “known for sexual content.” An undercover LMPD detective posed as a 16-year-old girl, and the men solicited the ads for sex with her. The operation was a joint effort between the LMPD and Kentucky Attorney General’s office, dubbed the “Human Trafficking Demand Reduction Detail.”

Those fake ads — which the arrest citations says were posted on and — received “390 emails, texts, and phone calls … by people interested in the ad,” according to Stokes.

“Of those, 265 people established contact and had voice or texts communications with the undercovers,” he said of the undercover officers. “Interestingly, despite the very nature of the site, 15 people disengaged with our undercovers based on her age as portrayed as under 18.”

Nuance in human trafficking laws

Why the men were charged with promoting human trafficking and not, for example, solicitation for commercial sex acts, rests with a technicality.

As Stokes explains: “Basically, anyone under 18 is unable to be a prostitute; they must be trafficked. Human trafficking for adults, over 18, requires force, fraud, or coercion. Being under 18 requires only commercial sex acts for something of value.”

Stokes concluded that there were no actual victims of human trafficking discovered during the operation, and that LMPD is unaware of any other victims.

Marissa Castellanos, Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Human Trafficking Project Manager, wouldn’t discuss the particulars of the LMPD operation. She said that while she can understand why such confusion could happen over how the sting was reported, she believes that the approach has “value in going after all the perpetrators — the folks that facilitate it, and folks that are engaging with it on the other end,” Castellanos said. “And, of course, treating the victims.”

Whether or not there were actual victims in the sting, she argued, doesn’t affect the value of such a law.

Castellanos added that the issue is a problem 365 days a year despite the attention it receives during Derby.

“We really advocate paying attention to trafficking all yearlong, because it’s happening in communities every day,” she said. “There is some belief that it’s tied to events like this. But you could also argue that it’s related to any increase in population.”

The International Labor Organization reports that there are approximately 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally.

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