How police can identify, respond to victims of human trafficking

While it can be very difficult to maintain communication with a victim, do your best and always follow up when promised


By Mandy Johnson

Human trafficking is the exploitation of another by force, fraud or coercion. This prolific criminal venture has two elements: forced labor (servitude) or commercial sexual exploitation (forced prostitution or sex trafficking). As of 2015, in addition to the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, every state had instituted its own anti-human trafficking statute. Within an agency, officers, investigators and detectives are typically going to encounter sex trafficking victims – those involved in commercial sex acts which have been caused by force, fraud or coercion.

Sex trafficking victimology

Although the victimology is applicable to both labor trafficking and sex trafficking victims, sex trafficking will be the present focus. Sex trafficking is present in multiple arenas: prostitutes walking the streets, massage parlors, escort services, online dating services, dark web purchases and brothels.

Being diligent and maintaining contact with a victim can go a long way to ultimately pulling them from the life.
Being diligent and maintaining contact with a victim can go a long way to ultimately pulling them from the life.

Victims might not only endure physical torture but many suffer from a plethora of psychological abuse,  resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, stress and anxiety. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, many victims are dealing with dreams and promises that quickly turned to traumatic situations. Victims find themselves trapped in the sex and service industry, living with inhumane treatment, physical and mental abuse and threats to themselves or their families.

Identifying sex trafficking cases, especially juvenile cases, can prove difficult but not impossible. Some victims may appear to be “free to move” or willing to work by their own volition, but in actuality, they may be operating out of force or fear (e.g., they may be “willing” to perform sex acts in an effort to protect their family, children, or themselves from threatened harm).

Some sex trafficking indicators law enforcement can look for are victims who:

  • Avoid eye contact
  • Lack identification or money
  • Have tattoos or branding of her “boyfriend” or “daddy” or known pimps
  • Have unexplained bruises, cuts or other signs of physical abuse
  • Are fearful of or aggressive toward law enforcement
  • Change stories or refuse to be honest

Due to their experience, many do not self-identify as victims. Similar to Stockholm’s syndrome, many victims defend or protect their abusers or traffickers. They do this out of loyalty to or affection for their abuser, fear of law enforcement, fear of retribution, fear of retaliation or simple animosity toward law enforcement based on previous encounters.

Law enforcement response

There are three essential needs law enforcement can address: (1) sense of safety, (2) environment to safely express their emotions and (3) addressing the next steps.

1. Sense of safety

Law enforcement can create a sense of safety by establishing and building rapport, treating the individual as a victim despite their previous arrests and ensuring that they will not be required or asked (by officers, the district attorney or judge) to perform exploitive sex acts. Providing quick access to advocates, social welfare agencies, medical attention and community services can be vital in a victim’s long road to recovery.

Be quick to identify barriers or areas of concern that should be dealt with: Are there language barriers that need to be addressed? Are they U.S. citizens or from another country? Do they have proper housing, clothing or personal hygiene items? Are there children involved that need to be taken care of? Resolving some of these concerns has the potential to not only create a sense of safety for the victim, but can begin the crucial healing process.

2. Ability to open up

Law enforcement officers have an opportunity to show themselves as trustworthy for a victim to open up to, express their emotions and talk about their experiences. In many situations, victims are not cooperative and do not trust law enforcement. Some do not believe that they are victims and others simply adamantly refuse to assist law enforcement because of the lies their trafficker has instilled in their belief system. Law enforcement can abate some of those situations by maintaining communication, refraining from expressing judgment or judgmental comments and keeping their word (e.g. call when they say they will).

Simple gestures can also aid in establishing a sense of safety, such as ensuring the victim retains their personal possessions, speaking to the victim with respect, looking them in the eye, or giving them some space as the victims might be initially apprehensive to law enforcement.

Many victims have very few items and they hold them in high value - do not belittle that. Getting the victim food and some rest can be so much more important than getting a statement. He or she is likely dealing with a tremendous amount of stimuli, lack of food and likely a lack of rest. Nourishing his or her body and allowing the victim to rest physically and emotionally can be a huge help to any interview or investigation.

3. Addressing next steps

Informing a victim of the next steps is important to meeting the aforementioned needs: creating a sense of safety and providing an environment where they can safely express their emotions. Victims already expect to be let down by the system and law enforcement. The best way to keep a positive image and rapport is to not make promises you cannot keep. If you say you are going to do something, but are not sure you can keep your word, caveat your statement.

While it can be very difficult to maintain communication with a victim, do your best. They often go back to the life (for a variety of reasons: fear of a trafficker’s retribution, it is all they know, sense of worthlessness, see no other option, truly believe they love their abuser and trafficker, etc). In those situations, the victim may move, their number may change and their social media site may change.

Being diligent and maintaining contact with a victim can go a long way to ultimately pulling them from the life, potentially assisting in prosecuting the trafficker and moving the victim in the direction of a more positive life path.


About the Author

Mandy Johnson has been in law enforcement for over nine years as a crime and intelligence analyst. She has a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and criminal justice, a Master's degree in criminal justice and a certificate in crime and intelligence analysis. She has worked at police departments, sheriff's offices, the California Department of Justice and the California State Threat Assessment Center (a federally recognized fusion center). She has also worked as a criminal justice college instructor. Her areas of expertise are prison and criminal street gangs and human trafficking.

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