Law enforcement faces challenges with vast definition of human trafficking

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ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Human trafficking, something often mentioned in the news, in movies and in law enforcement, is an ambiguous crime.

Language barriers, fear of traffickers and fear of law enforcement often keeps victims from seeking help, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s website, making it hidden within the community.

Interviews with city officials and victim advocates revealed a divided perception on whether prostitution and human trafficking are the same thing, something Sgt. Jason Strong with the St. Joseph’s Police Department says is crucial to tracking the traffickers.

“I think that even police officers have this perspective on human trafficking, that it’s somebody getting taken and thrown in the back of a car, and it’s an episode of ‘Taken,’” he said. “We want to be cautious to not over-represent what the problem is.”

Identifying Human Trafficking

According to Strong, police officers, along with the public, have a skewed idea of what human trafficking is.

Alison Phillips, a consultant at the Human Trafficking Training Center, said prostitution is a form of human trafficking.

“The vast majority, like 99% of what we see, is prostitution,” Phillips said. “Whether it’s happening on the streets, or in hotels, or even the high-level, escort-type of stuff, there is some element of force, fraud, or coercion, or if it’s a minor, that’s just, by law, it’s human trafficking.” 

She said some women who seem to choose sex work for a living, such as stripping, are actually in a position where they feel there is little to no other choice.

“I’ve found that most of the women working there [strip clubs] are single moms and they’re doing it to provide for their kid so they can stay in a good school district,” she said. “Is that really a choice of an empowered woman? I would say not.”

But Wright, with Homeland Security, said the department distinguishes human trafficking and prostitution as being related, but not the same thing.

“The main difference is, for trafficking, there has to be, like I just said, force, fraud or coercion,” he said. “We generally don’t get involved in prostitution, unless it’s on a much larger scale that would involve some sort of Nexus with the border. Prostitution, generally, is localized with the local police departments and that stuff.”

Each human trafficking case is distinctive, and there are different identifiers for sex and labor trafficking, Wright said.

“If they [the public] see something where, all of a sudden, for instance, maybe a student came abroad to study here in the U.S., but now, all of a sudden, they don’t seem to have the same freedoms and liberties that they maybe had originally, or they don’t have their passport,” Wright said.

“That’s kind of a red flag. Why would someone else control your passport? That’s not a typical thing.”

He said the public can assist in identifying trafficking victims by looking for signs of coercion and abuse in victims. 

Key identifiers include unexplained bruises, sudden trips out of town, new friends that appear to be associated with a gang, and unexplained tattoos that are hardly visible, he said.

“A lot of times, traffickers want to mark their victims as a way to show that, like ownership of them,” Wright said. “Not always, but oftentimes, we also see adult, male friends that are much older than what you would typically see with that type of person, but that’s not always the case.”

Spotting Slavery

Because Homeland Security has special investigative capabilities in dealing with foreign activity, and a strong Nexus with the border, Wright said 80% of the department’s trafficking cases are labor-related.

Data obtained by the National Human Trafficking Hotline, however, shows 594 cases of sex trafficking were reported between 2015 and 2019, roughly 85% higher than the 89 labor trafficking cases reported during this time.

“It’s always about money and the lucrativeness of trafficking,” he said, “and the money that can be made from it.”

Megan Cutter, director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, said public knowledge on human trafficking is low and more agencies should work toward defining the crime.

She said human trafficking often goes unnoticed because many individuals might have proximity to a human trafficking victim, but not context about what makes the victim vulnerable.

“Say, for example, you’re going to a restaurant to eat,” she said. “You’re maybe encountering a lot of staff, but it’s all the front-of-house staff.”

“You might be in close, physical proximity to the kitchen of that restaurant, but you don’t necessarily know about the working conditions in the kitchen. You don’t have context. But say, at that same restaurant, you work as a hostess twice a week. You start to talk to the folks that are washing dishes and you realize they’re always here, even though your schedule changes. One of them shares with you that they don’t have their passport. You see the manager maybe occasionally verbally abusing them.”

Though hotels, restaurants and massage parlors are hotspots for human trafficking, Wright said human trafficking can happen anywhere, especially now that the Internet has opened up ways for traffickers to access victims easily.

“You could have trafficking going on literally across the street,” he said. “Generally speaking, you’re going to see it probably in larger cities, just because of the amount of people that are seeking that type of activity is going to be larger in a larger city, and it can go less unnoticed in a larger city. It certainly doesn’t not go on in rural areas, as well. It just is probably more prominent in larger cities.”

Cutter said physical and sexual abuse, emotional coercion, threats, fear of law enforcement, and manipulation are main reasons why victims of trafficking might be hesitant to escape.

“Trafficking situations involve some form of control,” she said. “That could be really intense physical and sexual abuse, but even more than that, we see a lot of emotional coercion and threats. So, saying to the person, ‘Sure, you could leave this situation, but then I’m going to find your family and I’m going to kill them,’ that type of coercion is really, really powerful.”

She said law enforcement needs to function as a safety net for victims so traffickers have less to manipulate with.

“Sometimes, traffickers also threaten the use of law enforcement against victims,” she said. “If the victim is struggling with substance use, the trafficker might say, ‘They’re just going to think you’re a drug addict,’ and then, the person is losing trust in this system of law enforcement and feels like, ‘Even if I do encounter a law enforcement officer, they’re not going to want to help me.’

She said this method of coercion can be incredibly effective.

“When that trust [in the system] is eroded, that, plus a level of coercion happening, whether it’s emotional, physical,” she said, “that makes it really difficult for someone to ask for help and be ready to make that choice to leave.”

Resources for human trafficking victims

Strong said police officers have a duty to not only educate the public on what human trafficking is, but also to address human trafficking by educating themselves and conducting enforcement work.

“It’s the goal not to arrest them,” he said. “That’s the goal, that they identify as a victim, that we provide them services immediately on the scene. We know that they’re likely not going to take it. In fact, I think that, oftentimes, they’ll come into services five to 10 times over before they decide to take it.”

He said YMCA facilities provide victims with shelter, daycare, and financial resources to help them get out of trafficking situations. He said most officers are not even aware of victim services in their area, or how hard it is for a victim to accept they have been exploited and abused in the first place.

“I try to talk to the new officers, ‘If you had to leave tomorrow, like a fleeting, asteroid-mining situation, you couldn’t just up and leave,’” he said. “‘You got kids, you have work, your clothes, your property. It’s not always that easy,’ There’s that mental manipulation where you just feel like you can’t leave.”

Embedding mental health liaisons within a police department can especially help law enforcement’s outreach and community engagement, Strong said. 

He said police departments need to step up their game.

“You wouldn’t believe how they [our officers] support these programs,” he said. “They engage with these mental health liaisons every day. They’re part of everything that we do at the police department. It’s a great collaboration because it’s putting the resources where they matter. You don’t need a police officer on every single call.”

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