Law Enforcement, Social Media Users Turn An Act Of Kindness Into A Human Trafficking Investigation
from the some-people-are-just-the-worst dept
With enough self-delusion, any act of humanity can be considered a criminal act. It works for cops. It also works for the general public. When you’re a suspicious busybody with an overactive imagination and too much time on your hands, you can waste everyone’s tax dollars by panicking.
A Walmart employ, who is apparently convinced human trafficking is as common as the common cold, decided to get law enforcement involved, resulting in this message from the Coshocton (OH) County Sheriff’s Office:
On 2/15/2021 the Sheriff’s Office received a call from the Walmart Security Department in regards to suspicious activity in their parking lot involving a vehicle and two, what appear to be, males looking into vehicles and placing a single red rose under the windshield wipers of those vehicles. While reviewing the Walmart Surveillance Cameras, the two unknown males are seen exiting from, what appears to be, a newer style dark gray Ford Explorer, or similar looking vehicle, with chrome rims and side mirrors and placing a single red rose on it. This same sequence occurs multiple times on several vehicles that are parked on the outskirts of the parking lot. The males then get back into the vehicle and leave the area. Although there have been several Facebook posts of similar instances that have happened in Ohio regarding Human Trafficking related techniques, it is unclear at this time if this incident is related to such type of crime.
Pay attention to the last sentence and mourn with me over the state of online discourse. “Several Facebook posts of similar instances… regarding Human Trafficking related techniques.” Oh wow. Maybe Facebook shouldn’t be considered a trustworthy source of information about “Human Trafficking related techniques.” Perhaps Google might provide a more, better informed perspective on the red rose=human trafficking assumption.
Here’s a 2019 Snopes post detailing (and debunking) another stupid panic originating from Kentucky. A photo of a long-stemmed red rose slid into a car’s door handle was accompanied by something even writers for Law & Order: SVU would find too far-fetched:
“There have been recent incidents in Northern Kentucky about sex traffickers leaving roses on victim’s [sic] cars. The roses have a chemical on them to make you pass out, so they can grab you. One incident happened in the Walmart parking lot in Florence, KY! Please be careful, ladies!”
The photo used by this Facebook user dates back to 2014. And the original post containing it said nothing about human trafficking. Instead, it was captioned with nothing more than a bunch of words some people might have mistakenly believed were insightful or original.
“Growth is Not Pretty”
This was local law enforcement’s response to Snopes’ queries:
“This is completely unfounded and has been floating around for quite a long time. There have been zero incidents anywhere in Florence, or anywhere else that I have heard, of anything remotely related to this.”
But maybe the Kentucky cops were wrong. Let’s scroll through a few more search results…
Here’s another fact check from September 2020, roughly a year after the Snopes debunking, deflating yet another social media panic attack dealing with roses on cars. In this case, the roses were placed under the windshield wiper.
The viral copy and paste warning is the latest in a never ending stream of baseless, alarmist, and panicked posts that claims to describe the latest and trending method used by kidnappers or sex traffickers to kidnap vulnerable females.
The warning joins a countless number of other equally spurious warnings including the plastic bottle in the wheelwell warning, the zip tie on side mirror warning, the drug laced business card warning, the paper or $100 bill on the windshield warning and the baby car seat on the side of the road warning.
Anything that looks a little strange — but is otherwise explainable without having to conjure up waking nightmares involving swarthy men and helpless (presumably white) minors — tends to turn into a OMG SEX TRAFFICKING when handed over to excitable social media users.
Hey, falsely reporting a crime is [wait for it] a crime. And yet, these people never seem to get charged with anything, no matter how many law enforcement resources are wasted. If there are no consequences, there’s no deterrent.
One more time for the people in back who are still insisting on getting their news from internet randos:
“My mom just informed me that a new human trafficking thing that is being done is putting zip ties on girls’ [mirrors on their car doors] when they see that they are alone so when the girl comes back to her car [she is] distracted trying to take it off then they come up behind [her] and take [her],” TikTok user @ohokaygirl said in a video now deleted from the platform. “If you see one of these on your car door, please get in your car, lock your doors, roll up your windows and drive away immediately.”
Following the spread of a similar social media post last year, the San Angelo Police Department in Texas made a statement dispelling the rumor, assuring area residents that neither it nor the Angelo State University Police Department had received any reports of zip ties on cars, lamp posts, houses, apartments or fences.
Here’s another law enforcement response to a similar bout of hysteria:
Michigan State Police are warning about misinformation on social media. You may have seen the viral post warning about a zip tie sex trafficking trap.
It all started with a photo of a car on Facebook with a zip tie around the side mirror.
“It’s essentially like an urban legend or a scare-lore. The whole idea of the intent is just to scare people,” said Lt. Brian Oleksyk.
Oleksyk says sex traffickers are not leaving zip ties on cars.
“There’ve been other hoaxes that have been proven false like a flannel shirt on a windshield of a car or a specific parking lot of a shopping mall is grounds for sex-trafficking,” said Oleksyk.
Oleksyk says sex traffickers aren’t warning victims at all.
Everything is cyclical, including panics based on nothing more than someone seeing something unusual and deciding it must be something nefarious.
Here are the facts behind the Ohio human trafficking panic — one unfortunately obliged by local law enforcement. But before we get to the details, let’s examine the rest of the Sheriff’s statement:
After contacting surrounding Law Enforcement Agencies, this type of incident involving flowers being left on vehicles has not been reported to their Agencies.
This is the law enforcement version of Google. And I would normally applaud doing due diligence, but…
This incident is being treated as suspicious at this time.
Here’s what really happened:
Brittaney Strupe had a fantastic Valentine’s Day weekend.
She got engaged and had plenty of leftover red roses to show for it.
“I think (my fiancé) ended up saying that he spent over $300 in just roses,” Strupe said. “He was just going to throw them outside or in the trash, so I told him, instead of wasting, we should pass it on.”
So Strupe enlisted the help of her sister and daughter, and the trio headed out to spread some love, by placing roses on vehicles.
Strupe’s daughter, Kiara, had the idea of going to a place where the group could find a lot of vehicles.
“We should just go to Walmart, thinking like, oh yeah, this will be a good idea, people are going to come out and think it’s awesome, and that didn’t happen,” Kiara Strupe said.
It certainly did not. And the initial report from Walmart — one involving its surveillance cameras — said something about two males when it was actually two females. This detail, that eluded the sharp eyes of Walmart employees, might have ended this before it began. But it didn’t. And we’re left with this unfortunate chain of events.
Welcome to the law enforcement version of America: no good deed goes uninvestigated, if not actually unpunished. An investigation was opened as calls “started coming in,” according to Deputy Chris Johnson, who participated in the needless investigation. But it turned out to be nothing, which is where it started several hours and several hundred tax dollars earlier.
Here’s the update from the Sheriff’s Department:
After investigation of the Walmart rose incident and as a result of getting this information out to the fine citizens of Coshocton County, we are pleased to announce that the case has been solved and is in no way related to Human Trafficking in our county. A resident of the county called to inform us that they were the ones responsible for the incident and only had good, harmless intentions in mind. They had received the flowers as a Valentine’s Day gift and instead of throwing them way after beginning to wilt, they decided to pass on the love by leaving them for someone else to enjoy. They never meant to alarm anyone or cause any panic in our community.
This sounds great, but the Sheriff’s Department genuinely wants people to remain alarmed/panicked.
Deputy Johnson also agreed that the community should keep up the good deeds. But he added that it is very important for everyone to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings. He advises people to follow their guts and to not hesitate to call law enforcement about something suspicious.
[heavy sigh] Look, we do need vigilance to keep people safe. But we also need some cooler heads — especially heads being paid with tax dollars — to stop encouraging people to engage in fantastical conspiracy theories just because they saw something they hadn’t seen before. This may have resolved itself quickly and mostly quietly, but adding law enforcement to wild-ass suppositions is just a good way to get people hurt, killed, or at least temporarily robbed of several freedoms.
And, if you’d like some irony sprinkled on top of this social media/Sheriff’s Department shit sandwich, there’s this:
Every Friday night, volunteers with Out of Darkness drive the streets. They offer roses to the women for sale in our city. It’s free of charge. It’s a way out.
“I need to take care of my business and get myself together,” one woman told them.
“Don’t feel like you need to get everything together, because none of us have it all together,” a volunteer responded.
The rose comes with a hotline number — (404) 941-6024 — and a promise: if they call, someone will pick them up any time, day or night.
The program has rescued more than 500 women from forced prostitution in the past nine years. While some of them go back, 60% of the women move on to a meaningful life outside of sex trafficking. That’s double the national average for programs that do the same thing around the country.
So — using the same logic that determined this to be a sex trafficking operation — this spreading of roses could have been an anti-sex trafficking operation.
In the end, I’m glad no one was harmed. But it easily could have gone another way. The Sheriff Department’s decision to feed an echo chamber a statement that erred on the side of uninformed statements rather than caution didn’t help anything. People do need to be aware of things that are happening around them. But they shouldn’t end that awareness once they’ve reached a conclusion that isn’t supported by information only a few clicks away.