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Task force set to fight human, drug trafficking

FARGO — A Safe and Strong Communities Task Force was launched Friday to address human trafficking, drug trafficking and other issues gripping the state.

North Dakota Sen. Heitkamp and a coalition of leaders from across the state announced the task force during a news conference at the YWCA in Fargo. Erin Prochnow, the YWCA’s executive director, is a member of the task force and Heitkamp’s niece.

The task force, which is comprised of people from several fields who are knowledgeable about issues facing the state, is expected to recommend solutions.

Heitkamp said economic growth in the state has been great, but it is accompanied by challenges.

The spike in human and drug trafficking is not limited to the western part of the state, she said. Other issues the task force will address, such as mental health, Native American reservation issues and train safety, also affect the entire state, she said.

Heitkamp said organized crime has entered the state and is becoming hard to combat, especially in areas with limited law enforcement presence.

“When I was attorney general, we used to have to kind of work our way back to find the trail of the drug,” she said. “ … It’s one degree of separation, now. The cartels are literally in the state of North Dakota.”

She said the state needs to be better prepared for these challenges and called on the federal government for support.

Human and sex trafficking is expected to be one of the task force’s most difficult issues.

Christina Sambor of Bismarck, coordinator of the Force to End Human Sexual Exploitation, said her group is dedicated to curbing the rise in sex trafficking brought on by the oil boom. The group works with law enforcement and the communities to educate residents about the trafficking problem.

Acting Grand Forks Police Chief Michael Kirby said crime in the state is increasing and becoming more complex.

Increasing organized crime, trafficking and drug use on Native American reservations is another issue the task force will address.

Diane Johnson, a tribal judge from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation reservation, said the rise of prostitution, domestic violence, human and drug trafficking and domestic violence on reservations is alarming.

She said a vast majority of the crime in the nation is drug-related.

“It’s beyond the capabilities of the tribal government,” she said. “We need federal assistance. We need federal professionals that will live and work on the MHA Nation to help us with this crime wave.”

Johnson said the tribe’s law enforcement officers aren’t equipped to deal with drug cartels.

Heitkamp said she shares the same sense of urgency as Johnson to combat the rise of crime on the reservation.

Friday’s news conference also touched on mental health issues in North Dakota.

“I don’t visit with a sheriff that doesn’t tell me about problems they have in their jail because they’re incarcerating people who need something more than a little time working through their criminal justice issues,” Heitkamp said.

She said schools also deal with a lot of mental health issues.

Brad Gibbens, the deputy director at the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota, said the task force will look for options to help give residents more access to mental health care.