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Montana Department of Justice, Montana Beer and Wine Distributors Association Partner to Fight Human Trafficking in Montana

HELENA – Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen today announced a new partnership called the Sentinel Project between the Department of Justice (DOJ), Montana Beer and Wine Distributors Association (MBWDA), and Montana Association of Chiefs of Police (MACOP) to fight human trafficking in the state.

Beer and wine distribution employees statewide have participated in the awareness training, which included a viewing of a powerful video that includes real-life stories of human trafficking in Montana. All members of MBWDA and DOJ employees will be equipped with contact information to alert both authorities and our statewide human trafficking hotline, 1-833-406-STOP, if they spot suspicious behaviors. The general public is also encouraged to use this number to report suspected human trafficking.

“The Department of Justice’s Highway Patrol troopers, criminal investigators, and prosecutors are all-in on the fight against human trafficking but it’s going to take our entire state coming together to help victims and put an end to this heinous crime,” Attorney General Knudsen said. “MBWDA’s drivers, merchandisers, and salespeople are the boots on the ground in our communities, day in and day out.  Their efforts to identify and report signs of human trafficking will aid law enforcement tremendously in this fight.”

“As independent, local, family-run businesses, members of the Montana Beer and Wine Distributors Association are always looking for ways to make a difference in communities across Montana,” Mike Markovich, MBWDA board president, said. “Sadly, every community is vulnerable to the horrors of human trafficking, and Montana’s cities, towns, rural communities, and reservations are no exception. The hardworking men and women who work for our distributorships visit hundreds of licensed retail locations each week, are now prepared to be an extra set of eyes and ears on the ground in the fight against human trafficking.”

“The Montana Association of Chiefs of Police is proud to partner with community members, the Montana Department of Justice, and other law enforcement agencies to stop human trafficking,” Doug Overman, Kalispell Police Chief and MACOP president, said. “The fight will take more than law enforcement, and the distributors are additional eyes and ears in the community that can provide valuable information.  It is through progressive and responsible partnerships with the community that law enforcement is most effective.  We must remember the victims are daughters, sisters, brothers, and sons being victimized –it is incumbent on all of us to stop it.”

Beer and wine distributors collectively visit more than 3,200 retail establishments across the state, including bars, restaurants, hotels, convenience stores, package stores, sports arenas, and grocery stores. They are uniquely positioned to combat this heinous crime, given their access to locations at accounts often unseen by the public.

The Sentinel Project will also seek to enlist other government agencies, industries, and local law enforcement in the fight to end human trafficking in Montana.

Following the lead of the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), which started a nationwide effort to help distributors understand human trafficking, identify the signs, and respond if they suspect trafficking is happening, MBWDA formed the Sentinel Project and partnered with The Lifeguard Group, a service provider in Missoula, to create an awareness and training video.

Attorney General Knudsen acknowledged The LifeGuard Group for its approach in fighting human trafficking and providing services to victims.

“The training The LifeGuard Group provides in Montana and beyond helps countless individuals across a multitude of industries to understand, identify, and report signs of trafficking. Their tireless efforts and commitment are remarkable, and I thank them for their hard work,” Attorney General Knudsen said.

“We are excited for this partnership with MBWDA and the Montana Attorney General’s Office. Building this collaborative effort coupled with the Montana Human Trafficking Hotline puts Montana at the forefront of this fight,” Lowell Hochhalter, founder and executive director of The LifeGuard Group, said.

Human trafficking cases in the state have risen annually; the Montana Department of Justice tracked 41 cases in 2020, a 485 percent increase from 2015 when the agency tracked only seven cases. Last year, twenty-nine adult victims and six juvenile victims were rescued.

Native American women and girls, in particular, are more susceptible to trafficking than other Montanans. According to U.S. Justice Department statistics, they account for just 3.3% of our population and account for 30% to 40% of human and sex trafficking victims in the state.

The Montana Beer and Wine Distributors Association (MBWDA), has served Montana since 1953. MBWDA members and its employees, acting as the “middle tier” in Montana’s three-tier system, deliver beer and wine from manufacturers to approximately 3,200 licensed retail accounts located throughout Montana’s 56 counties.

Based in Missoula, Montana, The LifeGuard Group is a group of experts committed to an aggressive, comprehensive approach to fighting human trafficking.