BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — One approach law enforcement is taking to dealing with human trafficking is to target those who purchase sex and help the business thrive, better known as “johns.”

CBS 42 Morning News anchor Alissa Rothermich and her photojournalist, Andrew Baker, were granted access in January to document “Operation Buyer Beware.”

Over four days, the West Alabama Human Trafficking task force made 47 arrests for soliciting prostitution. Officers posted fake ads on websites that promote prostitution. When the “john” showed up at the motel and exchanged money with an undercover female officer they were cuffed and charged.

“The commercial sex buyer is what drives this industry. We can rescue human trafficking victims each day but there’s a trafficker ready to put someone else in that place,” said Lt. Darren Beams of the Tuscaloosa Police Department.

The organization, “Demand Abolition,” found that arresting commercial sex buyers is a strong deterrent when it comes to human trafficking.  

The theory is “no buyers, no business” and that, they say, could lead to real change when it comes to sex trafficking.

“One sexual assault is bad enough but imagine 10-15 times a day times ten years. The psychological trauma it’s like an onion trying to peel the layers back,” Beams said.

Dixie Shannon was trafficked several times over the course of four years.

“We were bought and sold from a network of people that he had already established. They made me feel like it was my choice,” Shannon said.

While being trafficked, Dixie was expelled from college. Since then, Alabama has passed a Safe Harbor law which views minors involved in prostitution as sexually exploited victims. This is a shift in mentality that law enforcement has been quick to follow.

“We had to take a long hard look at ‘are they suspects? Or are they victims?’ It shifted to a victim-centered approach,” Beams said.

These types of crimes garnered international attention in 2019 when financier Jeffrey Epstein was charged with sex trafficking. Advocates say his arrest proved that those who run these rings don’t always look like criminals.

“Traffickers or monsters or molesters or people who did things like that to people only looked a certain way. That is absolutely not the truth. This person looked just like me,” said Shannon.

As awareness continues to grow on this troubling topic, there is also more and more training going on within the community. The Department of Homeland Security trained more than 2,000 officers on how to spot and respond to trafficking victims just in 2019.

In recent months, cities like Birmingham, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills and Hoover have all signed trafficking free proclamations, committing to training city employees on how to spot and stop trafficking.