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The Front Line: Challenges for Law Enforcement in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Maureen Q. McGough, Esq., Policy Advisor, Office of the Director, National Institute of Justice

New laws, increased awareness, and better coordination among government agencies has not led to the identification of the number of human trafficking cases one might expect. This article explores research that pinpoints major barriers to victim identification, explains the disparity between what is known about the prevalence of human trafficking and current rates of identification, and suggests ways to overcome common challenges.

Barriers to Victim Identification

Conventional law enforcement responses to crime are largely ineffective in identifying trafficking victims. Every survey of law enforcement that the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has funded since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 has made it clear that identifying victims of trafficking is one of the most significant—if not the most significant—human trafficking challenge faced by law enforcement.

The surveys show that the most common ways law enforcement officers report learning about and identifying human trafficking victims is in the course of other investigations, such as drug raids and domestic violence calls.,a href="#1">1 In NIJ’s most recent survey of law enforcement, researchers from Northeastern University found the most common way officers become aware of a human trafficking case is through a tip, which comes from varied sources, from service providers to purchasers of commercial sex (johns).2 The increase in tips from the public may indicate that awareness campaigns are raising the public consciousness of trafficking victims.

Both means of police identification—in the course of other investigations or through a tip from the public—are reactive strategies. This suggests that either resources dedicated to proactive intelligence gathering and identification of trafficking cases are limited or officers are inexperienced in conducting proactive investigations of trafficking.

Failure to Identify as a Victim

The hidden nature of human trafficking is the foremost challenge that necessitates a proactive law enforcement approach. Traffickers go to great lengths to conceal their victims from both law enforcement and the general public, guarding them closely and limiting their interactions. When victims do interact with the general public, it is largely in furtherance of the crime; consumers of trafficked services have a strong incentive to keep their interactions covert, as they are usually engaging in illegal behavior when they encounter trafficking victims.3

Additionally, trafficking victims do not often identify themselves as victims and rarely engage in help-seeking behaviors. For example, most victims know there are laws that criminalize the activities they participate in, such as prostitution, and some have even been arrested for these crimes, but they may not know that there are laws that categorize their experiences as victimization and are designed to protect them from such experiences. This knowledge gap often makes victims reluctant to engage with law enforcement, even if given the opportunity to do so. Foreign victims of human trafficking have the added complication of a lack (or perceived lack) of lawful immigration status. These victims may have voluntarily come to the United States (perhaps incurring a large debt to a smuggler in the process), only to become a trafficking victim. However, the looming threat of deportation makes these victims particularly disinclined to engage with law enforcement.4 In addition, victims’ misconceptions about the laws and their rights are often reinforced by their traffickers.

Furthermore, some victims may have intimate relationships with their traffickers. Psychological trauma is common, and some victims experience Stockholm syndrome, which is the presence of positive feelings and even gratitude toward their captors for perceived favors or even for just being allowed to live.5 This challenge was voiced by a law enforcement respondent from the 2012 survey who said the following:

In most of our [nontrafficking] investigations, you’ve got a cooperating victim. “I got held up. Someone shot me. My house got broken into. They stole my car.” [But in trafficking] crimes, what do you have? Frequently, you have victims that are more or less, even though we know they’re not really, cooperating with the assailant [and] emotionally invested in the assailant somehow. Even as they are being traumatized, they also can’t figure out a way out of their predicament. That somehow they deserve what is happening to them, that somehow it’s right even though it violates their instincts about what’s right and wrong.6

Mistrust of Law Enforcement

Even if a victim does acknowledge his or her victimization, previous encounters with police or general mistrust or fear of law enforcement can prevent victims from fully and accurately disclosing their experiences. Victims who are able to identify their experience as victimization may not be confident that law enforcement will do the same. Foreign victims may also struggle with negative perceptions of law enforcement as informed by their interactions with or knowledge of corrupt law enforcement agencies in their home countries.7 Law enforcement’s ability to build trust and rapport with these victims is further hampered by a lack of translation resources, as some foreign victims may have a limited command of English.

Fear of Retribution and Loss of Support

Law enforcement officers who participate in research consistently note that almost all victims fear retribution from their traffickers as a result of cooperation with law enforcement. Sex trafficking victims also fear a loss of the support (both emotional and financial) provided by their trafficker, which is usually the only source of such support available to them.8 Given the pervasive lack of specific victim services necessary to successfully rescue, rehabilitate, and reintegrate victims, law enforcement officers are not in a position to offer alternative support systems to victims, a challenge noted in the following comment by an officer:

We have nothing [that lets us] say “Hey, I can put you up in…this place. And I can help you get an education. And I can help you get a job. And I can help you take care of your kids.” You know, we don’t have that. If I had that, man … we could stop prostitution.9

Lack of Training and Standard Operating Procedures for Law Enforcement

Detectives assigned to units responsible for human trafficking identification and investigation (such as vice units) usually receive training on victim identification, but patrol officers and other first responders are more likely to come into initial contact with a victim. The 2012 survey showed that these front-line officers rarely, if ever, received training on victim identification and appropriate responses. Even if a patrol officer is properly trained and successfully identifies a possible victim, many jurisdictions lack formalized mechanisms to ensure that the case is given to the appropriate specialized unit. One respondent from a unit responsible for trafficking investigations identified a common policy gap:

More than likely it would go to us, [but] it could also go to Robbery because Robbery also works kidnappings … it depends on who reads the report and how the report reads.… [T]here’s no definition of human trafficking in our policies.10

Lack of Specialized Personnel

Given that human trafficking victims do not often identify themselves as such, and those who do may harbor serious distrust for law enforcement, the use of effective interviewing techniques is imperative to obtain information and build trust. In the 2012 survey, one of the most common trafficking investigation challenges officers reported was their inability to properly interview victims. Common mistakes or shortcomings include an untrained or ineffective interviewer, the absence of a translator when necessary (or the only available translator being potentially involved in the case, such as a suspected victim’s employer), lack of cultural sensitivity, and lack of appreciation for the trauma experienced by the victims.11

Scope and Scale of Human Trafficking in the United States

Given the significant barriers to victim identification, it is not surprising that law enforcement officers are not identifying the numbers of human trafficking victims that one might expect. The same challenges also hamper researchers’ ability to measure the number of cases and reliably estimate their prevalence. Without reliable measures of prevalence, law enforcement’s understanding of human trafficking is often limited to each officer or agency’s direct experience. Because victims do not self-identify, it is likely that law enforcement officers have encountered more trafficking cases than they realize—cases that were misidentified or not investigated because the officers were unaware that they were dealing with a trafficking victim (or perpetrator).

The problem of identifying victims is cyclical: if law enforcement officers are not specifically looking for signs of trafficking, they likely will not identify victims. The fewer victims officers identify, the less they will perceive trafficking as a problem. The less they perceive trafficking as a problem, the less they will specifically look for signs of trafficking victimization—and the cycle continues.

The good news is that recent developments in research methodologies have given researchers the ability to produce statistically significant prevalence estimates within a specific geographical region. For example, in a study on the trafficking of migrant laborers in San Diego County, California, researchers from San Diego State University were able to produce a statistically sound estimate of the prevalence of labor trafficking victimization among unauthorized, Spanish-speaking migrant laborers in San Diego County. Specifically, researchers found that 31 percent of unauthorized Spanish-speaking migrant workers in San Diego County have experienced victimization that meets the legal definition of human trafficking.12 This signifies 38,458 victims in San Diego County alone.

These sobering numbers apply only to one specific population and a single form of trafficking victimization. They do not account for labor trafficking victims from different populations, nor do they include sex trafficking victims. Given that the commonly used estimates for human trafficking prevalence in the United States have oscillated between 14,500 and 50,000 victims, this study makes clear that the criminal justice system and other stakeholders in the United States may have drastically underestimated the extent to which human trafficking is occurring.

NIJ is currently building on these improved research efforts and is leveraging the successful methods and the instrument used in the San Diego study to determine the statewide prevalence of labor trafficking among migrant farmworkers in North Carolina, with final results expected in 2016.

The Way Forward: Overcoming Barriers to Identification

While research cannot yet definitively determine the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States as a whole, the data suggest that this is a crime occurring throughout the country, likely at a significantly greater rate than previously estimated. Accordingly, law enforcement agencies may benefit from exploring approaches to overcome the barriers to identifying victims and pursue proactive strategies for victim identification in their jurisdictions.

Research based on input from law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim service providers suggests a number of strategies to combat human trafficking:

  1. Prioritize human trafficking identification and educate the community. It was clear from the data that identifying human trafficking cases was not a priority for the local community the researchers studied. And while law enforcement reported having institutional support to follow up on tips or leads that suggested human trafficking, there was extremely limited support for proactive strategies targeting environments with significant trafficking risks. Police executives, community leaders, and the general public need a better understanding of human trafficking in the United States—namely, that it impacts jurisdictions throughout the country and requires specific law enforcement and community approaches to combat it.
  2. Use proactive identification and investigation strategies. Law enforcement largely relies on reactive strategies to identify victims of human trafficking. However, proactive strategies are necessary to overcome many of the barriers to victim identification. The research identified a proactive initiative, for example, in which a screening questionnaire was given to all runaway youth who came in contact with the system in response to research that has determined that runaway youth are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Proactive strategies and innovative techniques will likely require specific training and resources to be effective.
  3. Dedicate institutional resources to antitrafficking efforts. In an era where most law enforcement agencies are faced with limited budgets and competing priorities, dedicating specific resources for anti-trafficking efforts may be particularly challenging. However, in light of recent research on the prevalence of human trafficking, it is likely that at least some dedicated resources are warranted to support proactive approaches. Insufficient resources hamper officers’ ability to follow up on tips, conduct complex investigations, and use effective investigation methods to secure victim cooperation.
  4. Expand training to front-line officers. While the majority of law enforcement training has been targeted to specialized investigators in units responsible for investigating trafficking cases, patrol officers, EMTs, and other first responders need to know how to identify human trafficking victims as they are often the first public safety personnel to have contact with the victim.13

1Heather J. Clawson, Nicole Dutch, and Megan Cummings, Law Enforcement Responses to Human Trafficking and the Implications for Victims: Current Practice and Lessons Learned (National Institute of Justice, 2006), 28. See also Amy Farrell et al., Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement Responses to Human Trafficking (National Institute of Justice, 2008), 75.
2Amy Farrell, Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases (National Institute of Justice, 2012), 39.
3Ibid., 76.
4Farrell, Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement Responses, 82
5Office of Refugee Resettlement, “Fact Sheet: Labor Trafficking,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012; Laura Fitzgerald, “Stockholm Syndrome,” Time (August 2009).
6Farrell, Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement Responses, 83.
7Farrell, Identifying Challenges, 86.
8Ibid., 85.
9Ibid., 108.
10Ibid., 93
11Ibid., 96.
12Sheldon X. Zhang, Looking for a Hidden Population: Trafficking of Migrant Laborers in San Diego County (November 2012), (accessed June 4, 2014).
13Farrell, Identifying Challenges, 99–103.

Please cite as:

Maureen Q. McGough, “The Front Line: Challenges for Law Enforcement in the Fight Against Human Trafficking,” The Police Chief 81 (July 2014): 44–46.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 7, July 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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