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Human Trafficking: Building an Agency’s Social Capital Through a Social Justice Response

John Vanek, MA, Lieutenant (ret.), San Jose, California, Police Department, and Adjunct Professor, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Middlebury College, Monterey, California

When Drequan Dugar was arrested on charges of human trafficking on February 18, 2014, by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina, the case illustrated how the response to human trafficking has evolved from 10 years ago, which is when most law enforcement agencies first began to hear about modern slavery. The investigation into Dugar’s activities was launched by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices after a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on protecting sexually exploited children and youth informed them that a local 15-year-old girl was appearing in an online ad for “adult services.” After a four-day investigation, Dugar was located and arrested, and the victim was safe, all through the outreach efforts of a local NGO, an effective response by local law enforcement aware of human trafficking, and the mutual trust between the two.1

It was also, in the eyes of Detective Will Campbell of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, a “non-funded task force and collaboration success.”2 Campbell is among the growing number of law enforcement professionals responding to human trafficking in their communities without the advantages of affiliation with a federally funded anti-trafficking task force. Often, these investigators bring their personal passion to the fight against slavery and are forced to develop their own expertise. They may choose to work these cases while other officers—even command staff—scoff at the idea that human trafficking occurs in their jurisdictions. The vast majority of police officers and deputies fighting slavery every day do so in relative isolation.

But these officers, in addition to identifying victims of modern slavery and arresting offenders, are also building and enhancing their agencies’ reputation within their communities as they respond to one of the greatest human rights injustices in the world today. Human trafficking is one of the hottest topics in the media, and the stories fascinate the public.

How and why these professionals have chosen to take on the challenges in responding to human trafficking offers lessons for chiefs of police and other leaders in building social capital through their response to social justice issues.

When the U.S. Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, it was the first real change in U.S. slavery-related laws since the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, which prohibited slavery. No clear model for fighting human trafficking existed. The TVPA did offer several principles for an effective response, including using a victim-centered approach and the need for a multidisciplinary response team, but no best practices for responding to human trafficking existed. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Bureau of Justice Administration (BJA) began offering grant funding to local law enforcement agencies to create and manage multidisciplinary anti-trafficking task forces.

This Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force program was the first organized, funded, large-scale effort to respond to trafficking. The BJA-funded local law enforcement agencies were expected to partner with U.S. federal agencies, including their local U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security Investigations (ICE/HSI). In addition, local law enforcement was mandated to partner with local victim service providers capable of offering comprehensive services to victims of trafficking; these NGOs received funding from the DOJ’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC). The initial focus of these task forces was the identification and rescue of foreign national victims of trafficking, not U.S. citizens. In addition, the program focused on prosecuting offenders (usually at the federal level), training local law enforcement on the subject of human trafficking, and raising the public’s awareness of modern slavery. At the height of the program, 42 task forces received funding. While the program had a measure of success, including the identification of more than 3,300 potential victims of trafficking and the training of over 85,000 law enforcement officers and others, today only 13 task forces receive funding.3

Although the BJA/OVC program may appear to be waning, the public’s continued interest in human trafficking and increased media attention has helped drive an increasing response by local law enforcement agencies, service providers, and organizations focused on advocating for victims of trafficking, all independent from federal funding.

The response to human trafficking in the United States is disparate in most regards, with local agencies often investigating incidents (or serving victims) without reporting their activities to a central database, so the exact number of incidents and victims remains unclear. (Not until 2013 did the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program begin collecting data regarding human trafficking.) Yet at the same time, many anti-trafficking and law enforcement organizations voluntarily connect via the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), operated by the Polaris Project in Washington, D.C.

The NHTRC maintains a 24/7 hotline to connect victims, law enforcement, service providers, and others on an as-needed basis. One visible measure of the growth in the response to human trafficking is the increase in the number of agencies adding their contact information and their capabilities to the hotline database. Nicole Moler, director of the NHTRC, reports that over 3,200 organizations and agencies are currently part of the National Referral Database, and the database includes 211 city, county, or state-based referral and reporting protocols. Moler has witnessed the growth of the database since its inception in 2007 when most of the agencies connected with the hotline were affiliated with federally funded task forces. More recently, she has seen an increase in the number of law enforcement agencies, service providers (including those who already serve domestic violence and sexual assault victims, or victims in need of immigration or legal assistance), and runaway and homeless youth shelters joining the database. “It’s been so exciting for me to see the growth in the interest of supporting and being part of the hotline,” Moler said, with many law enforcement and service provider agencies “realizing they were already serving human trafficking victims, but just had not realized it in the past.”4

The growth in the use of the NHTRC hotline has been consistent since inception, with a 259 percent increase in call volume between 2008 and 2012. In addition, 1,488 individual survivors of trafficking contacted the hotline during that time, and, in 2013, 3,983 potential victims were referenced in over 35,000 “signals” (e.g., phone calls, SMS text messages, online tip forms, and emails) received by the NHTRC.5 The growth of the hotline can be attributed to several factors, including the realization by anti-trafficking and law enforcement organizations that the dynamics of trafficking require a national hub for connecting with others, since trafficking cases (and the victims) often require resources outside their local jurisdictions or service areas. Indeed, investigating “local” human trafficking cases often requires a national, or even global, perspective.

“Law enforcement around the world has the reputation of ignoring human rights, and this is the one topic that shows the community we are involved in human rights,” states Jon Daggy, Detective Sergeant with the Indianapolis, Indiana, Metropolitan Police Department’s (IMPD’s) Human Trafficking/Vice Unit. Ironically, the IMPD struggled to find human trafficking cases during the early years of its BJA grant funding (not an uncommon situation at the time when few, in and out of law enforcement, understood the dynamics of trafficking and how best to identify cases). But while losing the funding a few years ago created the need to find other budget resources, other factors now have the IMPD investigating cases and identifying victims on a regular basis.6

According to Daggy, two critical tipping points were a change in Indiana’s human trafficking law removing the need to show force, fraud, or coercion in the trafficking of minors and the impact from public outreach in advance of the 2012 Super Bowl held in Indianapolis. An anti-trafficking task force of local agencies was created for the Super Bowl with the support of the IMPD command staff, and as a result of the task force and other anti-trafficking efforts by the IMPD, “we are now internationally known,” says Daggy, who now has contacts in countries as diverse as Canada, Sweden, Israel, and Yemen.7 The IMPD has committed to its anti-trafficking efforts in several ways, including changing the name of the unit from Vice to Human Trafficking/Vice, screening all suspects found during traditional vice operations for being victims of human trafficking, and working closely with a proactive prosecutor who is also interested in combating human trafficking. The IMPD has also shifted its perspective to focus on “promoting for prostitution” cases, which makes pimps the primary target.

On a personal level, Daggy became interested in human trafficking during the early days of the federally funded task force when he realized victims of human trafficking are exploited in ways similar to victims of domestic violence—the crime is often invisible even when the victims are in clear sight. Daggy began to educate himself on the intricacies of human trafficking, including using Google Alerts to locate the few news articles about trafficking that existed before the media began to follow the topic more closely. Daggy also decided to work more closely with his task force counterparts from the FBI and ICE/HSI. As a result of his experiences, Daggy hopes to see trafficking investigated by all local agencies in the same streamlined manner as domestic violence. Daggy also plans to stay connected to the fight against slavery when he retires. Responding to human trafficking, “makes the department a better department,” says Daggy. “It can change the narrative of how a department is seen.”8

The IMPD is not the only police department to gain a new perspective—and unforeseen benefits—for its anti-trafficking efforts. Agencies in San Antonio, Texas, were among the first to receive BJA funding in 2006, but although they lost their funding in 2011, they did not lose the focus it had originally provided. Detective Rene Ochoa of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Human Trafficking Unit works with the Alamo Area Coalition Against Trafficking (AACAT) and has experienced the shift in the response to human trafficking from the initial focus on foreign national victims to balancing the efforts to include victims of domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST). “It would be great if all four agencies were located together,” Ochoa says, referencing the colocation with federal partners under the grant, as it offers the ability to bounce ideas off colleagues with different perspectives and capabilities, and it builds bonds of trust. However, although no longer sharing office space with ICE/HSI, Ochoa still maintains contact with his colleagues.

While federal funding enabled the agencies to start to fight against human trafficking, the sheriff’s office had to find new service providers and build new relationships as the grant ended, and, like any collaborative effort, having more partners means a broader and more sustainable response to human trafficking. Ochoa believes the expansion of partners offers the additional benefit of increasing the visibility of law enforcement’s response to trafficking in the Alamo area. “We’ve built a lot more relationships because of our human trafficking work, and it’s enhanced our reputation in the community.”9

Leaders in the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office in Greenville, North Carolina, took a unique approach when they applied for BJA funding; they planned to limit their grant to three years—just long enough to bring themselves up to speed on how to investigate and respond to trafficking, enhance their relationships with their local service providers who began serving victims of trafficking, and launch a public awareness campaign. Melissia Larson, grants administrator at Pitt County Sheriff’s Office and a nationally recognized authority on the multidisciplinary and victim-centered response to trafficking, believes that just because most law enforcement agencies should realize they might not come across many trafficking cases, that doesn’t mean agencies should be dismissive of the crime or its victims.

Instead, Larson recommends agencies enhance existing relationships with current service providers (such as those serving domestic violence or sexual assault victims) to include providing services to victims of human trafficking and focus on creating a protocol (or adapt an existing protocol) to address how both law enforcement and service providers will respond to a trafficking incident. The goal of a rapid response protocol should include how to deal with both the suspect and the victim during the first 24 hours after identifying an incident. Pitt County Sheriff’s Office has built its relationships and mutual trust with service providers to a level where the service providers perform the initial screening of potential victims on behalf of law enforcement. This allows investigators to initially focus on any suspects and pursue the criminal investigation.

Larson also suggests local agencies become involved with state or regional anti-trafficking coalitions, and proactively share resources (e.g., the NHTRC hotline number) with the public and other agencies. Spreading the word about how others can get involved in the fight against human trafficking helps to build an agency’s visibility and credibility in its response to human trafficking.10

“Showing a presence in the community, it gives us credibility. Plus, it gives me a personal sense of satisfaction,” says Sergeant Bill Grayson, who serves as the Human Trafficking Liaison Supervisor within the Special Victims Unit at the San Antonio (Texas) Police Department (SAPD). Like Detective Ochoa of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, Grayson collaborates with the AACAT. Although the agency was not involved in the original grant program, the SAPD realized human trafficking was occurring in San Antonio and went on the offensive through collaborative efforts and a change in its perspective on how victims of human trafficking, especially children, are exploited. “We sat in ignorance for so long, not recognizing trafficking,” said Grayson. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What have you missed because of your ignorance?’”11

One key element to SAPD’s response is recognizing and addressing the link between runaway children and DMST. Several studies have demonstrated a runaway teen’s susceptibility to recruitment by traffickers or pimps. In one study of “prostituted juvenile victims” (victims of DMST) in Reno, Nevada, 82 percent of the victims surveyed were also runaways.12 The SAPD now has a protocol to screen minors for possible victimization by traffickers, which includes several criteria that mandate screening, including juveniles who have run away three or more times, have been victimized by traffickers in the past, or have a known sexual history. The results of the screening are shared among the SAPD Missing Persons Unit, juvenile probation, and child protective services. Together these agencies are learning more about how runaways survive on the street and are better able to help these children.

Grayson, like every other law enforcement official interviewed for this article, readily states that U.S. law enforcement still has much to learn in its response to human trafficking and that working with non-law enforcement organizations is critical. The SAPD works with members of its local faith community and is involved in public awareness events. The area’s district attorney’s office is also committed to antitrafficking efforts and includes in-service training on human trafficking for its prosecutors. While most of the cases regularly crossing Grayson’s desk are DMST, his office recently investigated a labor trafficking case involving a foreign national forced into door-to-door sales—a trafficking case with a completely different set of dynamics.

Of course, not all anti-trafficking response work originates from within street-level or investigative units; in some cases, the leadership decides that creating a visible and viable response is necessary. Chief of Police Harry Earle of the Gloucester Township Police Department (GTPD) in Blackwood, New Jersey, decided to make responding to human trafficking a priority after several experiences raised his own level of awareness and understanding. The first step on his path was his department’s internal research project examining the traits of first-time offenders in Gloucester Township, which showed that first-time offenders are often runaways. Then, in 2012, Chief Earle attended a conference sponsored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children where, again, the exploitation of runaways by pimps and traffickers was examined. With a population of 77,000 and a sworn staff of 120 officers, GTPD receives approximately 150 missing children reports each year. Chief Earle’s philosophy of community policing includes “addressing social disorder,” and he decided it was time to initiate a new program with the goals of addressing this disorder, protecting youth, and lowering crime in Gloucester. Earle launched Project MARRS: Missing, At-Risk, Response Strategies.

Project MARRS is built upon the understanding that runaway and “throwaway” (those who leave their home without authorization and who are not reported as missing) children not only are at a higher risk of being victimized through human trafficking, sexual assault, or drug abuse, but also are more likely to commit criminal acts themselves. Thus, the program aims to first locate and protect the child and then support the child in a manner that will reduce the child’s chance of engaging in criminal conduct. This social justice approach then becomes a crime prevention tool.

“I never imagined this would catch on,” says Chief Earle. “These social disorder problems are screaming in our faces. We view this as a holistic crime reduction approach; this could help a child from becoming a burglar down the road.”13 Part of the MARRS response includes officers completing a Returned Missing Juvenile Return Questionnaire form, an extensive debrief of juveniles that seeks to go beyond a simple, “Are you okay?” and tries to determine other factors in the juveniles’ lives that may be the underlying reasons for their runaway activity. The questionnaire includes questions about the juvenile participating in or simply witnessing criminal activity—information that may help other investigators solve open investigations. After completing the questionnaire, an action plan is created based on the juvenile’s needs, which may involve social services and community organizations who have partnered with GTPD. The questionnaire also includes questions about how juveniles survived on the streets, such as how they obtained food and where they slept, which are critical questions since pimps and traffickers often recruit runaways who are simply hungry or lack a warm place to sleep. Savvy investigators and prosecutors also recognize that providing these essential elements of survival can be used by traffickers as a soft form of coercion and, when articulated as such, can be used against a trafficker during prosecution.

Chief Earle and his staff also created a public awareness program to raise their community’s knowledge of trafficking and, just as important, GTPD’s response capabilities. Earle often joins in on the presentation of this program, typically presented by GTPD’s Juvenile Unit sergeant and the department’s social worker. Chief Earle views his participation as an important step in gaining traction for the program, both among law enforcement officers and the community, and he believes it is critical to foster a climate where issues such as these are seen as important to the community.14

GTPD also changed its tactics and perspective on vice-related operations and now screens those involved in prostitution as potential victims of trafficking. GTPD has had success, including a recent prostitution sting operation in which they rescued a 26-year-old woman who was transported from North Carolina by male and female suspects. The prosecution is one of the first under New Jersey’s recently enhanced trafficking statute, which includes a 20-year minimum sentence for first-degree human trafficking.

GTPD widely promotes Project MARRS, its anti-trafficking work, and other activities via social media, using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and Pinterest. These platforms allow the GTPD to build community connections, increase its credibility, and enhance its social capital in ways that are not always easy to measure.

Sometimes these efforts lead to pleasant surprises. Recently, Chief Earle attended a public anti-human trafficking event where the speaker lamented that most law enforcement agencies don’t understand the extent of human trafficking and its impact on the community. But the speaker noted one exception—the Gloucester Township Police Department.15 Statements like these reinforce an agency’s motivation to address modern slavery and, of course, bring a smile to any chief’s face.

The support by chiefs of police like Harry Earle and their command staffs is critical in the fight against slavery. Detective Will Campbell, speaking about his work in New Hanover County, which included the Drequan Dugar case, highlighted this, stating, “I have the blessing of my sheriff and commanders to take on whatever I want in regards to human trafficking. I couldn’t do anything without that.”16 Chiefs of police should look to those among their staff who are already motivated to engage in antitrafficking investigations and are willing to work with non-law enforcement partners and community organizations that are focused on this terrible social “injustice” issue. This new evolution in the response to human trafficking is based on local passion and expertise, adaptability, and resource building, and is no longer dependent upon the federally funded task force model. Chiefs who empower their staff to engage at this level will not only help free those who are exploited by traffickers or victims of other social disorder; they will also offer new opportunities for their officers to enhance their professional skills, including collaboration and leadership, along with being rewarded with enhanced community relations and increased social capital. ♦

John Vanek is a consultant and nationally recognized authority on human trafficking. Mr. Vanek has consulted for a variety of federal, state, and private organizations assisting with their response to modern-day slavery and collaborative task force leadership. He can be contacted at

1F. Norton, “Wilmington Man Charged with Human Trafficking,” StarNews Online, February 19, 2014, (accessed March 17, 2014).
2Will Campbell (detective, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office), telephone interview, March 12, 2014.
3Bureau of Justice Assistance, Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force Initiative, (accessed March 19, 2014).
4Nicole Moler (director, NHTRC), telephone interview, March 13, 2014.
5Human Trafficking Trends in the United States: National Human Trafficking Resource Center 2007-2012, Polaris Project, 2013, (accessed March 13, 2014); National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 2013 Statistical
, Polaris Project, 2014, (accessed March 13, 2014).
6Jon Daggy (detective sergeant, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department), telephone interview, March 5, 2014.
7While the actual increase in trafficking in a city that is hosting the Super Bowl is debated within the human trafficking community, it is clear that the Super Bowl and, to a lesser degree, other prominent sporting events provide an opportunity for media stories to link trafficking to these events. Several media outlets referenced commercial sex trafficking during the lead-up to the 2013 Super Bowl in New Jersey, and San Francisco Bay Area antitrafficking organizations are already planning outreach efforts for the 2016 Super Bowl.
8Jon Daggy (detective sergeant, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department), telephone interview, March 5, 2014.
9Rene Ochoa (detective, Bexar County Sheriff’s Human Trafficking Unit), telephone interview, March 6, 2014.
10Melissia Larson (grants administrator, Pitt County Sheriff’s Office), telephone interview, March 6, 2014.
11Bill Grayson (human trafficking liaison supervisor, San Antonio Police Department), telephone interview, March 6, 2014.
12Linda A. Smith, Samantha Healy Vardaman, and Melissa A. Snow, The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children, 2009, (accessed March 24, 2014).
13W. Harry Earle (chief of police, Gloucestor Township Police Department), email correspondence, March 27, 2014.
14W. Harry Earle (chief of police, Gloucestor Township Police Department), telephone interview, March 18, 2014.
16Will Campbell (detective, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office), telephone interview, March 12, 2014.

Human Trafficking: 5 Steps to Engagement

Engaging in the response to human trafficking (or any other social justice issue) can be a challenge for law enforcement agencies because the goals of engagement are different from (but complementary to) the goals of enforcement. Engagement means increasing an agency’s visible response to trafficking, enhancing relationships with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and demonstrating the priority the agency places on victims of trafficking, which requires a different approach than an enforcement-only response to human trafficking. The following steps can lay the foundation for engagement and require little effort or funding to implement.

  1. Find the right person for the agency’s engagement activities. Look among staff to identify individuals who have a personal interest in the topic of human trafficking and who would be willing to engage with NGOs and the community. The best person(s) for this role may not be the detective responsible for investigating human trafficking.
  2. Empower those assigned to engagement efforts. Select an officer or officers who possess the interpersonal and public speaking skills to work with NGOs and the public; then, empower them to actually engage, not simply report back to the leadership. The selected officers will become known as the “go-to” people in the agency regarding human trafficking. Let them speak for the agency, when appropriate, and give them the independence to make certain decisions. This ability to act on their own will be seen as a reflection of the agency’s trust and the importance it places on human trafficking.
  3. Make the agency’s response visible. Have the officer assigned to engagement activities prepare a public program that presents human trafficking from the agency’s perspective and highlights its response capabilities. Remember, these capabilities need not be extensive, as trafficking incidents may be rare in some jurisdictions. The key is to show that the agency views trafficking as an important issue and has a plan when victims are identified. Promote the engagement activities via press releases and social media.
  4. Train the agency’s officers and create protocols. Training need not be extensive, but should include state statutes, recognizing victims of both forced labor and commercial sex trafficking, defining a victim-centered response, and, most importantly, which NGOs should be contacted when victims are located and which investigator in the department should be notified. Refresher training should be offered annually. Amend existing protocols with victim services providers to include victims of trafficking or create new protocols. (See Additional Resources.)
  5. Change the focus of vice operations from “anti-prostitution” to “anti-human trafficking” by setting up the operations to focus on locating and arresting the pimp or trafficker. Screen sex workers for being victims of trafficking. Determine what forms of force, fraud, or coercion have been used by the trafficker; remember, they may be very subtle. Force, fraud, or coercion need not be proven when the victim is a minor and engaged in commercial sex. This can be difficult due to the often complex nature of the relationship between the trafficker and trafficking victim and can test the patience of investigators, but the payoff is removing a victim from the control of a trafficker and sending the trafficker to prison. After a successful anti-trafficking operation, make sure to promote the success via press releases and social media.
Additional Resources

The Office for Victims of Crime/Bureau of Justice Assistance (OVC/BJA) Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force Strategy and Operations e-Guide:

Originally created for use by task forces, this document will aid any law enforcement agency in establishing a collaborative response to trafficking. The e-guide contains examples of protocols and other useful materials. As of June 2014, a revised and expanded version of the e-guide is being reviewed by the OVC Training and Technical Assistance Center (TTAC). The updated e-guide is slated to be released in August 2014.♦

Please cite as:

John Vanek, “Human Trafficking: Building an Agency’s Social Capital Through a Social Justice Response," The Police Chief 81 (July 2014): 48–54.



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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