TAMPA — Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister ramped up his department’s focus on the sex trade last year with the creation of a human trafficking unit.
Last week, Chronister touted its effectiveness at cracking down on predators looking for victims within the county’s borders.
“What we wanted to do and where our focus will always remain is targeting the demand,” Chronister said during an Aug. 25 press conference at the Falkenburg Road Jail Assembly Room. “We want to reduce the demand. We believe if we dry up the demand there won’t be human trafficking because no one will be able to profit off a young child or any adult.”
The HCSO’s human trafficking unit began its latest operations in April and focused on reducing the demand for prostitution. The efforts resulted in the arrest of 176 men, some seeking to commit illegal acts with minors, reports state.
Joining Chronister on stage Aug. 25 was new Hillsborough State Attorney Susan Lopez and two representatives with Selah Freedom, a nonprofit anti-human trafficking organization based in Florida and the Midwest. Lopez was appointed to her new position in early August after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial suspension of former Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren.
Chronister, who was on stage Aug. 4 with DeSantis and a number of other Tampa Bay area sheriffs during the announcement of Warren’s suspension, introduced and praised Lopez on Aug. 25.
“Thank you for your commitment to holding individuals accountable and prosecuting those who want to continue to prey on others for profit when it comes to the sex trade,” Chronister said to the former Hillsborough County judge. “Thank you for you and your office’s commitment.”
Chronister provided details of some recent stings, including one that involved a newlywed husband arrested for soliciting a prostitute during his honeymoon.
More nefarious operations included an undercover deputy creating an online profile claiming to be the father wishing to traffic his 14-year-old daughter. “We placed ads on the web, even the dark web, and it is concerning the response that we received,” Chronister said.
The sheriff described reading some comments from suspects online as “repulsive” and that one individual replied to the undercover deputy that his 14-year-old daughter was “too old for me.”
Following the latest operations, the Human Trafficking Squad has made 360 total arrests since its inception in June 2021.
“And yes, that’s important,” Chronister said, adding that the task force has also rescued eight victims. “Three hundred sixty individuals that we hope won’t prey on another or engage in this sex trade we have right here in our county and state.”