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July 27, 2021Episode 13. When Captives Become Cargo: How transportation professionals can disrupt human trafficking.
FEATURING: John Habermann
An efficient transportation network is central to the success of any commercial enterprise, including those that aren’t legal. Our roads and bridges enable the scourge of human trafficking, but as Research Engineer John Haberman tells us, those who manage the network can play a part in disrupting that heinous activity.
About Our Guest
John Habermann works in TTI’s Research and Implementation Division. For 25 years, John has established expertise and interests in work zone safety, stakeholder engagement, local-road low-cost safety improvements, roadway and highway construction, technology transfer, workshop and course development, and transportation policy. Additionally, through John’s research and involvement in Haiti and the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition, he has developed a proficiency in understanding human trafficking and its intersection with the transportation industry.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Welcome to Thinking Transportation. Conversations about things that happen between Point A and Point B, and why they matter. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:30):
When John Habermann was studying to become a civil engineer, the subject of human trafficking was not among the college courses that he signed up for. But now, more than 20 years later, that topic permeates his daily work just as surely as the details of roadway reconstruction. Human trafficking, after all, requires a transportation network. When that network operates at its best for commercial interests that are legitimate, it can be just as efficient for those that are not. And when that network includes one of the busiest highways in North America, the potential for sustaining the modern slave trade is immense. If transportation professionals can be enlisted to join the fight, their potential for good is equally vast. Thank you for being our guest, John.
John Habermann (guest) (01:24):
I look forward to the conversation with you, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (01:27):
Can we start with a definition? Can you define for our listeners, human trafficking, including the transportation aspect that we’re talking about today?
John Habermann (01:38):
Of course. Human trafficking comprises the recruitment, the harboring, the transportation, the provision, the obtaining, the patronizing or the soliciting of a person through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of financial gain, either through labor and/or labor and sex, essentially treating them as slaves.
Bernie Fette (02:05):
So we could almost boil the whole definition down to the last few words that you said: for the purpose of slavery.
John Habermann (02:13):
Yes. One part of it is someone is working and not benefiting financially from the work or the person working or doing actions, those actions, and that work is illegal. And they’re being forced to do illegal activity for the financial benefit of someone else.
Bernie Fette (02:32):
Yeah. There are more than 300,000 trafficking victims in Texas at any given time, according to the attorney general.
John Habermann (02:38):
Bernie Fette (02:38):
More than 25 million worldwide, which is just a staggering number, both worldwide and for our state, for something that we aren’t routinely conscious of happening. This is not something that people think about driving down the road every day, which makes me wonder just anecdotally, about the likelihood that the cars that we’re passing on the highway, you know, there’s a reasonable chance that a certain number of those vehicles are transporting victims of human trafficking. Is that too much of a stretch?
John Habermann (03:11):
No, that’s fair to say. Or I would say in any given year, I would expect that all of us would be at an intersection or be passing this activity in some form or fashion, whether it’s in the vehicle, or going by a subdivision or going by a business strip mall or any number of those type of routine activities that we do that we’re driving by it. That’s fair to say.
Bernie Fette (03:42):
And so it’s just something that’s a lot more commonplace than we would know if, if we weren’t having this conversation and sharing this information with people.
John Habermann (03:51):
That we would know, or that we would be aghast at how common it is, maybe even a little disbelief that it is that common given how structured our society is, how well our judicial system runs and how well our law enforcement patrol. Yeah, it’s staggering. Once, once I started learning about it, it took me aback, uh, to digest and absorb it all.
Bernie Fette (04:21):
And you talk about whenever you started to understand it, this does not sound like the kind of subject that you would have been exploring when you were in civil engineering school.
John Habermann (04:30):
Bernie Fette (04:32):
So, can you tell us about the path that you took that got you into this field of work?
John Habermann (04:39):
The biggest catalyst was the Waco area, for the population size of our community here in Waco, others in the community have developed a very effective human trafficking coalition called the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition, put together by a ministry in this community called Unbound. And from what I understand, statistically per capita, this coalition has done more work than most coalitions around the country and has gained quite a bit of attention on how effective their work is. So as a citizen of this community, and as someone who works in transportation, I thought I would just attend the coalition meetings during the lunches and learn what it’s all about and see if there’s an on-ramp for me to participate. And that on-ramp, I won’t say it was difficult. It was just, I was in a room with FBI agents, judges, survivor advocacy, not-for-profits, police officers. And I’m thinking, where do I fit into this story? Or where do I fit into this fight? We sign our emails “in the fight.” So how am I able to join the fight? And more importantly, is there a role of my professional skillsets that could play into this?
John Habermann (06:09):
So with that antenna up one day, and I see one RFP (request for proposals) wanting to explore this topic of the intersection of human trafficking with transportation and how can state DOTs contribute to the disruption of human trafficking. So it was in the assembly of that proposal, the reviewing the materials, the literature review that began to open my eyes on a very serious level as to something I, I would like to continually explore until it caught legs. And it could be part of my research portfolio or even the TTI research portfolio. I kept my direct supervisor and his boss informed of this progress and this desire. It caught hold within the TTI family. And whenever there was a, a human trafficking component to a proposal, colleagues started reaching out and then eventually we won a proposal with the federal transit administration to help the FTA develop a training and awareness and outreach materials on crimes that happen on buses, subways, and trains, and part of the crime prevention materials had to include human trafficking. So I put forth my experience in this regard to help the proposal. And, and now we’re currently working on that.
Bernie Fette (07:44):
So the research that you’re working on right now sponsored by U.S. Department of Transportation, I’m wondering how long have DOTs been working in this particular area, in this space?
John Habermann (07:59):
With anything a state DOT does, you would find, uh, a spectrum of high involvement to zero involvement. And I don’t have the specific date, but from the back of my mind, I know that the Iowa DOT and the Minnesota DOT are two that come to mind that have been doing this the longest. And Iowa, mostly because they have the intersection of Interstate 80 with Interstate 35, which creates a lot of truck stops. And the trucking industry in many ways supports illicit activities at truck stops. And so they wanted to curtail that within their state. So it, it took on some momentum pretty quickly for them. And so much of what I learned was because of the Iowa DOT.
Bernie Fette (08:51):
Okay. Based on the description of your work, it seems to resemble somewhat what we know as Green Dot programs — bystander intervention programs that were first created about 15 years ago, largely created to address sexual assault and domestic violence on college campuses. Is that a relatively fair comparison between those programs and the kinds of work that you and your colleagues are doing?
John Habermann (09:19):
That’s a fair statement. As we talked about it, it’s activity that was on no one’s forefront of their mind when they’re worried about the curvature of the road, the drainage of the road, the pavement strength of the road. This puts in more of the user of the road component into what it is that we do.
Bernie Fette (09:38):
Yeah. So you’re looking at something more about what’s happening on the road, as opposed to how the road’s constructed.
John Habermann (09:44):
Bernie Fette (09:44):
Those bystander intervention programs are based in part on as the work that you’re doing on recognizing signs of potential trouble, and then acting in some way to disrupt situations and possibly, hopefully prevent that trouble. So what are the signs of potential trafficking activity that you want transportation professionals to be able to recognize?
John Habermann (10:13):
The powerful component that a state DOT, that a city public works office or a road office on tribal lands, what they bring to the table is, um, for example, in TxDOT, there’s 12,000 employees at the Texas Department of Transportation. And that is a lot of people where a large majority of those actually work outside, um, for the department.
Bernie Fette (10:43):
That’s a lot of sets of eyes to be looking for these signs.
John Habermann (10:46):
Yes. And many people I would think listening to this realize that a state DOT is sectioned off into districts, into regional offices in Texas, we call them area offices. There’s maintenance offices. And so these 12,000 people with 24,000 eyes are equally for the most part distributed throughout the state on unpaved road, on a very rural road, at rest areas.
Bernie Fette (11:18):
So they’re very well positioned,
John Habermann (11:19):
Bernie Fette (11:19):
to be watching for these signs. So what are those signs that they’re being trained to watch for?
John Habermann (11:27):
And that’s where TxDOT and other DOTs had to get their hands around this issue, because what you’re looking for sometimes depends on where you’re working. And so if someone is working in a high-population or high-density area on an arterial road or state highway that goes through the city, they may be working next to a hotel and notice quite a bit of in-and-out activity during the day when you would expect activity at a hotel to start after 3:00 p.m., when the patrons come in and check in for the evening. And then who is coming in and out of the property? Are the ones coming out of the property suspect because you would think that looks like someone that should be in school right now? Or, I see that person coming into that hotel quite a bit. And every time that person comes in at that hotel, there’s a different young person with them. So that’s one sign.
John Habermann (12:28):
Another sign — if you’re out in the rural area, someone might notice vehicles entering a certain property that those working on the road know that there’s no retail business in that property. So why would cars on a routine basis throughout the day be going into that farm with no business reason to be going in there? Uh, another thing could be noticing a van full of people going in and out of a property where it could be, uh, a labor farming type of situation where those individuals don’t have the opportunity to drive themselves or to be in control of their own lives. There could also be, if someone happens to be at a rest area or a rest stop at the right time, there could be a van or a car full of two or three people that jump out and then start knocking on the doors of the truckers. And that’s kind of suspicious activity. So right off the top of my head, those are a few examples of what state DOTs have identified that their employees may notice while working on the road and that they would include in a training module that their employees receive on a routine basis.
Bernie Fette (13:43):
What we’re talking about is obviously in certain ways, a very sensitive topic. And you’ve talked about some of the signs that people on the lookout should be watching out for. Are there any hesitancies on the part of workers to report things? Is there an issue about erring on the side of caution?
John Habermann (14:04):
The low-hanging fruit is when two cars crash into each other and someone needs to call 911. Most everybody I know would pick up the phone and call 911. Hey, there’s a crash at Valley Mills and Waco Drive that just happened. It doesn’t look like anyone’s hurt, but we need help. So that’s the type of phone call we would hope people would make.
Bernie Fette (14:32):
They’re easier judgment calls, pick up the phone and call.
John Habermann (14:35):
Easier judgment calls. It also feels like maybe I’m getting less involved. You know, that even though there’s no involvement and there’s no involvement in making a call on other activities, it just feels more serious. When I look across the street and I see one person with a handful of cash and another person with a handful of Ziploc bags with some grassy material in it. And wondering if that’s a drug exchange, do I call 911 about that? Or do I just let it go? When I notice some of these activities, as I mentioned before at a, at a hotel, do I call 911 and say, hey, I’m not really sure here, but this is what I noticed? You know, 911, we’ve all been conditioned and trained that that’s, that’s an emergency situation type phone call. There’s also the phone number to the local sheriff’s office, the phone number to the local city police station that calling those numbers are appropriate as well. They can get you patched over to a detective who can take the information, uh, without having to go through the 911 dispatch.
John Habermann (15:47):
And I would encourage individuals to make those phone calls because many times, investigators, detectives, and others who are trying to build cases on certain crimes, that phone call could give them another data point. That phone call could say, hey, we suspect stuff between 9:00 a.m. And 3:00 p.m. And now we’ve had five phone calls about suspicious activities between that time. So now they know to increase their surveillance, they increase their investigations. So the other side of this coin is to report suspicious activity, as many of us have seen in an airport. If you see something, say something like a bag that’s just sitting there and no one’s handling it. None of us want an explosion to go off in an airport. So we report it when we see it. So we’re using that same theme here. If you see something, say something, but please don’t walk up and try to help or ask questions, or any of those types of things, because it may disrupt what the investigators are doing. Some of the people you see that are doing suspicious activity may be undercover, but if you report it, then they know better what to do with the information than any individual quote, “getting involved.”
Bernie Fette (17:14):
So it sounds like you’re saying that you, you want people who are in a position to notice things, to call them to the attention of the proper authorities, but then hopefully stay out of the way.
John Habermann (17:25):
Bernie Fette (17:25):
You had mentioned earlier being aghast at some of the things that the people would, would learn about this topic. What would people be the most surprised by? The most shocked by?
John Habermann (17:42):
In a very broad term, the desire to make money gets so bent and so dark that someone has to take advantage of another human being in a very illegal, demeaning, tragic way just to get that money. And how that plays out is what gets really heavy in the research. Because, you know, we, we all think we know what human trafficking is, but it has some very deep and dark corners. And then it also someone not only thinks they need money by doing that to one person, but the person orchestrating in it creates a network of people, such that they’re just sitting around collecting money and abusing other people, such that they don’t know how to act, but only to just obey and do what they’re told to do because they fear … They fear what they have to do, but they fear more getting out of what they have to do. And that psychological abuse along with the physical abuse and the mental abuse is what begins to get very heavy.
Bernie Fette (19:07):
And these people are in very vulnerable situations. They’re coming from a place of desperation. This is such a dark topic. And for people in positions like yours, who are trying to fight this problem, it seems that it might be easy to become discouraged. What motivates you to keep trying?
John Habermann (19:30):
Personally, one of the, to me, one of the disbenefits of the internet and constant news is the fact that some of these problems are quote “worldwide.” And it, the way the news is digested makes everything seem overwhelming. So what I’ve decided to do in my life, not just with human trafficking, but with some other things, is I’ve learned to draw a boundary around my life. I’ve learned to accept that I have a certain sphere of influence. And some people are given bigger spheres of influence. Some people are given smaller spheres of influence. But I have decided to be the steward of my sphere of influence. So as long as I’m being faithful to my sphere, as long as I’m being diligent with the work that’s within my control, then that’s what keeps me going. That’s what keeps me energized because I could only do my part. And I want to be faithful to that part.
Bernie Fette (20:38):
You definitely sound like you feel that you have been called to do this.
John Habermann (20:42):
One time I asked my sister-in-law — this is a light example — she became a, a spin instructor. And I, I asked her, I go, so when did spin instructing, why’d you become a spin instructor? And she goes, well, I didn’t go to the gym wanting to be a spin instructor. I went to the gym to work out and spin instructing found me. So that’s sometimes how I quickly answer that question is, human trafficking kind of found me. I wasn’t necessarily looking to contribute, but now that I’m here and now that I understand, and now that I have resources, and now that momentum has kicked in both personally and professionally in this topic, I feel a responsibility to continue it.
Bernie Fette (21:34):
This question kind of has two parts. And I’m curious about what you think may be, have been the strongest advancements in this fight recently. And what is it that you see as the next big opportunity for advancement?
John Habermann (21:49):
The biggest advancement has been many communities outside of Waco have similar coalitions. The fact that those coalitions are realizing that their local transportation professionals can be helpful is a big accomplishment. The fact that the Institute of Transportation Engineers has accepted presentations, poster sessions, and articles on this topic to inform their membership is a big advancement. The bigger advancement is the fact that the USDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the Transportation Research Board are now funneling dollars into research and improvement, and maybe getting into more data collection. And I guess that dovetails into your second question, that further advancements could be in what kind of data can transportation researchers can transportation departments collect that would be beneficial to those that are trying to, to break up the rings of human trafficking. That’s the part that’s still relatively new because you know, we all know big data is important, but what part of our big data is useful to the disruption of human trafficking, is a question where we’re still pursuing.
Bernie Fette (23:23):
Well, even though this is a very dark topic, we’re happy that this is a problem that found you because it’s clear that you have a firm commitment in this fight. So we thank you for the work that you’re doing. Is there anything that you wanted to mention that I haven’t asked you about? Anything at all?
John Habermann (23:42):
Yes. There’s one additional thing. When it comes to transportation, I want transportation professionals to also know that our transportation network, our transportation facilities can be used for healing. That’s another thing that we’re talking about internally, the governor of Texas has an office on child sex trafficking, and I’ve been able to work with that office a little bit and make connections with Austin and San Antonio so that they can have conversation with the transit leaders in those communities to say: Hey, once someone is out of human trafficking and needs to be re-engaged with society and to successfully do that, they need counseling. They need a job, they need community, but they don’t have a lot of assets to do all that. We’re finding ways that the transportation profession could give rides on their transit systems, on their subways, through their taxi services or any number of things that not only, you know, we talked a lot about how the transportation system is used for illicit activities, but we can also leverage our transportation system to help with the healing process once we’ve identified survivors.
Bernie Fette (25:09):
So those facilities and systems are places where bad things are currently happening, but those places are also where good things can happen.
John Habermann (25:18):
And that’s correct.
Bernie Fette (25:19):
John Habermann — research engineer for TTI. This has been very enlightening, John, thank you so much for, for sharing your time and insight with us.
John Habermann (25:31):
Yeah. And thank you for the time Bernie, and, and the ability to discuss this with my colleagues and others who may be listening.
Bernie Fette (25:40):
Human trafficking shares something in common with entirely legal ventures. To be successful, both require a system of mobility. Just as legitimate shippers need roads and bridges to meet routine customer needs, those who trade in human lives must have a transportation network to profit from their sinister enterprise. And that puts transportation professionals in a unique spot — where they can interrupt the trafficking cycle. If they know what to look for, and how to respond.
Bernie Fette (26:13):
Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll be back for the next episode, when we visit with Katie Womack, who will help us understand the roadway safety attitudes and behaviors of Texas drivers, and how those thoughts and actions have changed over the past decade. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau, I’m your writer and host Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.