By Liz Cutler Gates
Ken Lawson readily admits he didn’t intend to spend the greater part of his law enforcement career in the Sexual Assault Unit of the Columbus (Ohio) Division of Police. But after more than a decade, he has found it to be a place where he can help people.
“I never expected to stay in the office,” says the member of the Grace Brethren Church of Columbus (Worthington). “Now I can’t think of a place on the police department where I’d rather be.” In the last 12 years, the 18-year veteran officer has investigated more than 900 sexual assault and kidnapping cases.
“It’s sharpened my skills for ministry,” notes Lawson, who leads an Adult Bible Fellowship at the Columbus church, “in terms of dealing with people, being compassionate, being sensitive, communicating. I think it’s made me a better husband and father, too,” he admits.
Lawson and his wife of seven years, Kim, have two sons, Connor and Blake. The couple is also on the Grace Leadership Team, she is the Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) Coordinator, and he serves on the pastoral search committee.
Ken Lawson accepted Christ as his Savior at an early age. That faith has helped him during his daily encounters. “The person who did this (crime) will ultimately have to give an account for what he has done,” he says of his investigative work, “regardless of whether I can prove a case to a court’s satisfaction. That takes the pressure off me,” he adds.
In an employment position where he cannot share his faith openly, he exhibits it in quiet ways, such as his approach to an individual. “They may not like what I am telling them, but they appreciate the person,” he says. “I would attribute that to the Holy Spirit in me that makes me the individual who can deliver that message.”
The detective also recognizes divine intervention when it comes to solving a crime. “There are times when I have absolutely no idea what to do on a case, but it just comes,” he says. “I think in a very real way that God does direct some of the investigations that I do.”
He feels it’s that kind of direction that has found him in a lead position in the investigation of human trafficking in Ohio. An inquiry from a staffer at Concerned Women for America concerning clues that a person has been trafficked has blossomed into a drive to educate law enforcement, social workers, health care providers, and even church people to the signs of human trafficking.
“There are people in the world who are greedy,” he says bluntly. “They want to make money off of individuals that they can force into the commercial sex trade. On the labor side, they can be domestic servants, nannies, or agricultural workers. There’s a whole list of areas.”
Gaining Expertise in Trafficking
He has quickly become an expert on the issue. “I am speaking to any group that will listen,” he says, “and am hoping to influence opinions through that.”
The statistics roll easily off his tongue. Victims of human trafficking are young children, teenagers, men, and women. The U.S. Department of State estimates that approximately 800,000 to 900,000 victims are trafficked across international borders world wide and between 18,000 and 20,000 of those victims are trafficked in the U.S. Lawson believes it has become the second most profitable criminal enterprise in the world, behind illegal drugs, and it’s the fastest growing.
At a U.S. Department of Justice conference on trafficking in 2004, he realized that local police departments could be dealing with the issue. He acknowledges that federal agencies with responsibilities for investigating the crime were also responsible for investigating terrorism. “You know which one gets the most resources,” he notes.
In Ohio, he’d like to see a statute passed that would increase the penalties for those who use force, fraud, or coercion to make people engage in commercial sexual activity or labor, in addition to expanding the scope of current law. It also would increase the penalty for those who place underage persons in commercial sexual activity.
“Until 2000, no statute existed to address the psychological coercion that keeps a person in involuntary servitude,” he stresses. This could involve taking an individual’s travel documents so they would not be able to prove legal status if found by police, performing a voodoo ritual to make them believe their family will die if they don’t engage in the demanded activity, threatening that the government will arrest them if they try to leave, or threatening to harm family members in their country of origin.
The Church Can Be Involved
Lawson hopes that local churches will become involved in the issue. He points to international mission organizations such as Shared Hope International and Warm Blankets that take in trafficked children, teach them about Christ, and provide them with an education.
“As our work here progresses, churches will have the same opportunity to care for people who have been trafficked in this country,” he says. He stresses that many people who are trafficked in the U.S. often don’t speak the language, need medical attention, and a job. And, often, they need to remain in an area to testify against their offender.
He sees the hand of God guiding his work on the issue. “I never could have orchestrated where we are right now,” he says, “not in my position. I’m the lowest rung of my department and certainly the state,” he notes. “But the things that we’ve been able to do, the relationships we’ve been able to build and the people who have taken an interest in what we are doing. I could not have directed any of that. It has been very gratifying to see the way God has been involved and ordering the steps, directing the investigation, and delivering justice.”
His career is rooted in the desire to help people. The son of a Grace Brethren minister, he went to Grace College in the early 80’s with the goal of being a pastor. Ken’s dad and mom, Charles and Fayth Lawson, have ministered at the Trotwood, Ohio, Grace Brethren Church since 1965. At graduation, he pursued an interest in law enforcement.
He’s found it a unique place to apply the principles that a pastor might use in working with hurting individuals. And while it might not be the full-time ministry he’d once envisioned, there is still time for that.
“I can retire in six years and I’m hoping to be a pastor,” he says.
Liz Cutler Gates is director of communications for the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University. A Grace College journalism graduate, she serves on the board of the Brethren Missionary Herald Co. and is an active member of the Worthington, Ohio, Grace Brethren Church.