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New unit aims to fight human trafficking on Long Island

LONG ISLAND -- In April, police arrested a brother and sister on suspicion of running a sex trafficking ring in Suffolk County.

The duo allegedly used drugs to get their victims addicted before forcing them into prostitution. They allegedly operated out of hotels in Commack, East Farmingdale and Port Jefferson Station.

In March, five alleged members of the Bloods gang were arrested for another sex trafficking ring that spanned the entire county. Both arrests were thanks to the work of Suffolk County's new human trafficking task force.

"People still think of this as an issue that occurs in other countries or other places," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.

Seeds for the partnership between the FBI, Suffolk County Police, the District Attorney, and Victim Support Services were planted more than a year ago.

Case workers reported more signs of trafficking in victims' stories, while investigators noticed traffickers using websites and social media to market prostitution.

"We knew we had a problem in Suffolk County which is why we put the resources behind it," District Attorney Tim Sini said.

The added effort is already yielding results. In the 10 years before the task force, Suffolk County had five indictments on human trafficking. In the last year, they've had 11.

"This is one of those emerging issue that we're going to be focused on like a laser," Bellone said.

One reason the new task force has been so successful is that investigators changed the way they view the women involved. Recognizing them as victims of the horrific crimes has helped lead to more arrests.

"When you're able to help victims in real way, you're more likely to get their cooperation," Sini said.

Which is why the task force includes non-government organizations which provide therapy sessions in lieu of jail time. If the women complete the programs, their charges are dismissed or the cases are sealed.

"If we focus on the victims, we can have a tremendous impact on the supply chain to those who traffic the victims," FBI assistant special agent-in-charge Michael Osborne said.

With the Human Trafficking Investigation Unit now in the public eye, all involved with the unit are hopeful it will help other victims come forward.

If you suspect sex trafficking to be a problem in your area or for someone you know, call 1-800-220-Tips. All calls are confidential.