U.S. congested with human trafficking, but collaboration may offer road to safety

Human trafficking generates billions of dollars in profits per year, second only to drug trafficking as the profitable form of transnational crime. The exploitation of women, men and children for forced labor and sexual acts has permeated the global community. The internet creates both new opportunities for traffickers to exploit vulnerable people around the world, and a platform to identify traffickers in this unlawful industry.

According to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security reported opening 1,304 investigations possibly involving human trafficking in fiscal year (FY) 2015 (October through September), an increase from 987 in FY 2014. During FY 2015, the Department of Justice secured convictions against 297 traffickers, compared with 184 convictions obtained in FY 2014. Of these, 291 involved predominantly sex trafficking and six involved predominantly labor trafficking, although several involved both.

Sex trafficking and human slavery are certainly nothing new, but the internet has created a dark space for predators to buy and sell people. Today, more than 150,000 escort ads are posted in the U.S. every day, many of them for children. The human trafficking industry enslaves an estimated 27 million people worldwide.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is interpreted to shield websites that participate in sex trafficking from any criminal liability. On Monday, Congresswoman Ann Wagner introduced the bipartisan States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017. This would allow state authorities to investigate and prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking using state criminal statutes that prohibit sex trafficking or sexual exploitation of children. The Act also clarifies that it is unlawful for a provider of an interactive computer service to publish information provided by someone with reckless disregard that the information is a sex trafficking offense. This means that social media, classified ad sites and a host of other computer platforms could be held accountable if it introduces an underage person to a possible sex buyer.

Several public-private partnerships have formed to deter human trafficking. In February, Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), the Texas Trucking Association and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton brought the trucking industry and law enforcement together to discuss human trafficking. Last year, Paxton’s office partnered with TAT on a series of coalition builds in Lubbock, Tyler, Houston and San Antonio.

On April 4, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered remarks at a workshop hosted by the Governor’s Child Sex-Trafficking Team (CSTT) designed to develop collaborative approaches to recovering child sex-trafficking victims and providing them the services they need to heal and thrive. Attending the event were six multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) from areas around the state where trafficking is heavily prevalent, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Waco, Austin and San Antonio. The teams are made up of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, child protection and juvenile justice agency personnel, medical and mental health service providers and community and faith-based organizations.

Over the 4-day workshop the MDTs will develop action plans to bring back to their regions and implement a coordinated response to child sex-trafficking in order to bring exploiters of children to justice.

Human trafficking is also monitored in the skies.  Airline Ambassadors International trains workers at airlines and airports how to spot and report cases of human trafficking. It also delivers humanitarian aid around the world and transports sick children who need medical care. The organization began in 1996 and started focusing on human trafficking in 2009. They have held 52 training sessions in the U.S. and abroad since 2011.

The hotel industry is also keeping a watchful eye for strange activity. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy announced that government officials and private partners were taking on a new initiative to provide training for state hotel and motel operators and their employees about the warning signs of human trafficking and how best to report suspicious activity. Most of the sightings have been along Interstate 95. Some of the warning signs of trafficking in a hotel/motel include a child staying for an extended timeframe with few or no possessions, pornography being rented in a room that a child is staying in, and a child appearing to be disoriented, confused, and unrelated to the adult with whom they are staying.

In February, Thorn founder and actor Ashton Kutcher went viral when he gave personal testimony to the U.S. Senate on the tragedy of child trafficking. Kutcher highlighted the public-private partnerships that have enabled his software to succeed, as well as the need to help children once they are found. Thorn creates tech tools specifically geared to helping authorities. In 2011, law enforcement officials in the U.S. turned 22 million images and videos of child abuse over to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to identify victims. Thorn is using machine learning, in which computers learn what advertisements represent a child, and creates an algorithm to predict what other ads are more likely to be associated with a child. That may hopefully reduce the thousands of images of children in circulation.

The organizations also uses facial recognition software that recognizes signs of aging and can identify children from photos. They are working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s database of missing children that could be matched to images from online ads. This helps detectives in tracking down and identifying children.

These digital defenders of children have also created a way for victims and concerned citizens to send a silent text message 24-hours a day. “BeFree” (233733) instantly connects individuals with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, operated by the Polaris Project.

Since 2007, the NHTRC hotline has received more than 70,000 calls from across the country and around the world, connected more than 8,300 victims to assistance and support and reported more than 3,000 cases to law enforcement. NHTRC is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division.

Cyber threats impact everyone! Is it time for citizens and taxpayers to get more involved?

Cyber stalkers present serious threats to businesses, governmental entities and organizations of all types. The ever-present danger is said to be increasing at an alarming pace, and because the aftermath of any cyberattack is so devastating and costly, technology changes are occurring at a dizzying pace. In spite of that, most citizens do not believe that current cyber security efforts are adequate.

According to a recent study, 50 percent of state and local governments experienced six to 25 breaches in the prior 24 months, and 12 percent experienced more than 25 breaches. The federal government will spend approximately $17 billion to enhance cyber security in 2017 but state and local governments are being forced to address the same threats with much less when it comes to funding and resources. In a recent survey, 80 percent of state chief information officers (CIOs) indicated that the lack of funding for cyber security is their top challenge.

In spite of restrained resources, public officials at the state levels of government are currently involved in, or discussing and planning, cyber security enhancement projects. The National Governors Association (NGA) is trying to help and has issued recommendations for a number of basic actions that should be initiated.

The organization is urging governors and state legislators to analyze the cost and benefits of cyber security and to move beyond reliance on regulatory processes, the most common ways states have addressed cyber threats in the past.  The suggestions for immediate action are interesting and helpful, but cyber security experts urge government leaders to do much more.

For instance, many states are investing in more data security training for state employees. And, it’s obvious that employees cannot perform well as the first line of defense if they are not painfully aware of the dangers of neglect or haste or inattention when dealing with critical information and network security. Security protocols should be standardized and monitored continually but old networks and legacy technology are almost like sitting ducks on a pond for cyber stalkers.

Private-sector firms own and operate 85 percent of critical infrastructure in the United States and some, but not all, rely on world-class technology experts to keep their data networks safe. State officials don’t have the funding to attract and retain world-class cyber security talent.  As a result, almost all engage private-sector firms to help them address cyber threats. Interestingly enough, though, private-sector firms may be less interested in contracting with governmental entities. Demand for technology talent is so great that many companies are making their greatest efforts in the commercial sector.

Government procurement for goods and services has always been a lengthy process but that must change. Some public entities are addressing streamlining the acquisition process and that is particularly encouraging. Changes must occur or private-sector firms will lose interest in providing the best talent and technology advances to government.

Government leaders are particularly focusing on power grids, utility cooperatives, transportation and water security. Governors have been urged to ensure adequate protection to even the smallest communities because so many are vulnerable. Cyber stalkers with even low levels of expertise are attracted to susceptible targets.

Taxpayers and citizens realize the risks but few individuals feel the need to reach out to elected officials and express their concerns. If ever there was a time for individuals to let their elected officials know of their concern for cyber security, surely it is now.

Cities spending millions on master plans in hopes of keeping vehicles parked at home

“Share the road,” is a phrase most people have seen on a roadway sign or may have heard in a commercial brought to you by your state’s transportation agency. We all own the road, but are we doing a good job of sharing it with those who drive, walk or pedal their way alongside of us? How much of a wide berth are we giving the vehicle in front of us and the pedestrian or cyclists that we will eventually pass? Even when we do our best driving it still won’t stop a cyclist or pedestrian from darting into traffic or abstaining from the use of reflective gear or lights.  Whether its four wheels, two wheels or no wheels, everyone must do their part to keep down deadly statistics.

According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, 5,376 pedestrians and 818 bicyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles in 2015. This represents the highest number of pedestrians killed in one year since 1996.  Though total traffic fatalities in the United States fell by nearly 18 percent from 2006 to 2015, pedestrian fatalities rose by 12 percent during the same ten-year period.

Walking, bicycling and using public transportation can help your wallet, health and community. Cities are trying to alleviate road congestion by implementing projects or campaigns that may entice drivers to keep their vehicles parked at home.

Bicycling provided a list of the top 50 bike cities for 2016. At the top of the list is Chicago, that added 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes in 2015 at a cost of $12 million. When its protected bike lanes are completed in 2017 in conjunction with its Loop Link transit project, Chicago will be the first major U.S. city with a downtown network of protected bike lanes. The city also replaced a 75-year-old walkway with a 620-foot suspension bridge. The 35th Street pedestrian bridge opened in 2016 after two years of construction at a cost of $18 million from the federal government and $5 million from the state of Illinois.

Coming in at a close second is San Francisco with many miles of new and high-quality cycling facilities. The city implemented 800 new bike racks and there are plans to add raised and protected bike lanes on 2nd Street in 2017. San Francisco has one of the nation’s densest bike share networks, with 4,500 bikes in the city itself and more than 7,000 across the region. Portland, Ore. receives third place for their “out of the vehicle” efforts, fourth is New York, N.Y., fifth is Seattle, Wash., sixth is Minneapolis, Minn. and seventh is Austin, Texas.

More and more cities across the state are developing a bike and walk master plan and investing millions of dollars to make the vision a reality. Fresno is doing just that and for good reason. The Federal Highway Traffic Administration lists Fresno as one of the most dangerous cities in the nation for pedestrians and bicyclists. The city’s Active Transportation Plan calls for adding 947 miles of bike facilities and 661 miles of sidewalks throughout Fresno in the years to come, at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion. It also identifies a priority network that could feasibly be built in the next ten years, which includes 28 miles of Class I bike paths and 45 miles of sidewalks, at a cost of$114.7 million.

Cities are creating bikes paths on the east coast too. In November 2016, Rhode Island voters approved a $35 million Green Economy Bond. Ten bikeway projects around the state, totaling $10 million, will create over ten new miles of path and improve safety and connectivity across the state’s bikeway network. There are more than 60 miles of bike path in the state. Bond-funded projects will connect and extend segments of the Blackstone River Bikeway and the South County Bikeway, make the Jamestown Bridge bicycle accessible, establish new bikeways in Westerly and in Newport, and improve on-road connections in Olneyville and other urgent locations. Completion is expected within three years.

It will take a lot longer than three years to complete the East Coast Greenway, which was conceived in 1991. It’s the nation’s most ambitious long-distance urban bicycle and walking route. The route connects existing and planned shared-use trails and will stretch 3,000 miles from Maine to Florida. A linear park, the East Coast Greenway is planned almost entirely on public right-of-ways, incorporating waterfront esplanades, park paths, abandoned railroad corridors, canal towpaths and pathways along highway corridors.  Roughly 30 percent of the route is completed on off-road sections.

Bike station with tools connected to wires and an air pump. Photo courtesy of Paul Niedermeyer.

What happens if your bike breaks down? Cities are now implementing bicycle repair stations that provide basic bicycle repair capability to business districts and corridors that cater to bicyclists. Repair stations feature a stand to mount a bicycle and contain the basic tools needed to perform do-it-yourself bicycle repairs including screwdrivers, wrenches and hex tools. Repair stations also feature a heavy duty bicycle pump and connect users to detailed instructions for a wide variety of bicycle repairs-just a smart phone scan away.

In 2014, Los Angeles launched its repair station pilot program with the purchase of 11 Fixit stations. Purchase of the repair stations was made possible through a public-private partnership which included the city, a maintenance sponsor and a local business that had the station on their street.

What about storage for your mode of transportation? More and more cities are now passing zoning laws requiring the addition of bike rooms in apartment buildings. They want to see support for their investment in bike lanes around town. Architects are creating bike rooms that are not only equipped with convenient,  bike racks, but also with amenities such as showers, lockers, bike repair stations, bike washing stations and air pumps.

The state-of-the-art spaces often have their own entrances, saving wear-and-tear on the lobby and passenger elevators. They also offer their own gear by way of pumps and repair stands, and, sometimes, homey touches like hooks for hanging helmets. In the fancier buildings, porters and door attendants act as bike valets. Bike rooms in buildings coming to market now are being tricked out with compression air pumps, of the sort found in bike shops and gas stations, and work stands to which one can clamp a bike while oiling a chain or fixing a flat. Tools are often on hand, and sometimes there’s a hose for washing bikes down after a muddy ride.

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Interested in construction projects? Look to city leaders who are desperate for affordable housing projects!

City leaders have lots of priorities, but perhaps none more critical than affordable housing!

Teachers, medical personnel, public safety officers, first responders and others need to be able to live downtown, but because urban real estate is so expensive, it is almost impossible for them to find affordable housing. City leaders know they must change that reality.

Residents in cities that lack good public transportation have incredibly high transportation costs. The costs are so high there is a huge disincentive to moving to the city. Auto-intensive cities such as Austin, Orlando and Las Vegas have transportation costs that are prohibitive.  Because of that, it is almost impossible to hire people whose jobs require them to locate and find living accommodations downtown. City officials are continually reaching out to potential private-sector partners to help them remedy this serious problem.

There are all kinds of successful public-private partnerships (P3s) related to affordable housing projects. And, city leaders are taking long looks at P3s. The success of a Mountain View affordable housing public-private partnership in California has led other cities to pursue affordable housing programs using a variety of funding mechanisms—tax credits, low-interest loans, grants, incentives and the transfer of city-owned property to developers. And, recent voter-approved affordable housing bonds and taxes in places like Los Angeles, Calif., Greensboro, N.C., Boston, Mass. and Portland, Ore. will soon announce funding for construction of affordable housing units.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation and the state’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development have announced plans to redevelop the former Spofford Juvenile Detention Center in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. The five-acre site will soon offer affordable housing, recreational venues and retail space. Developers of the $300 million project plan to demolish the detention center and replace it with 740 units of affordable housing, a 52,000-square-foot public plaza, 49,000 square feet of industrial space, 48,000 square feet of community facility space and 21,000 square feet of retail space.

The city of Berkeley is experiencing homelessness and affordable housing crisis. As part of its “Step Up Housing” initiative, the city will issue a request for proposals (RFP) to select a developer to create up to 100 small residential units, AKA “micro units”, on small city-owned lots. These units will be made available to formerly homeless and other very low income residents.

In November 2016, voters in Ashville, N.C. approved $25 million in affordable housing bonds. $10 million is available to provide additional support for the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which makes low-interest loans to incentivize developers to build affordable housing. The remaining $15 million will be used to repurpose city-owned land for affordable housing. Currently, three sites have been proposed for study as options for developing affordable housing. The studies, which will utilize outside consultants, will include environmental assessments, appraisals, surveys and conceptual designs.

Just this month, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development announced a plan to rebuild from Hurricane Sandy and protect residents from future floods. Part of the $481 million plan includes proposed affordable housing projects, including the development of five acres of vacant city-owned lots on Rockaway Beach Boulevard. In addition to affordable housing units, the mixed-use development will include retail and community facilities.

The city of Detroit recently issued an RFP for developers interested in multi-family housing in the former Transfiguration School on the east side. The RFP is designed to attract developers capable of planning a mixed-income development that contains 15-25 residential units with 20 percent designated as affordable housing. Proposals are due on May 22, 2017.

Opportunities are not the problem. Construction firms interested in partnering with cities for affordable housing will find a huge abundance of opportunities. The problem, and perhaps the question, is this—which construction firms want to build this type of housing?  If these firms step up soon, the companies are likely to  find city leaders waiting with open arms.