Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

woman by David Comdico e1516980654982
Photo by David Comdico via Flickr

Highlighted in every police department’s public safety mission is the duty to help crime survivors feel safe enough to come forward after being victimized.

However, information gathered from human trafficking victims who have been caught up in police investigations suggests they often do not trust police, and would only rarely seek law enforcement assistance.

In a study entitled Failing Victims? Challenges of the Police Response to Human Trafficking, researchers examined Uniform Crime Report data and transcribed interviews of survivors living in three U.S. locations.

The study, written by researchers and professors from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Northeastern University, was published in the latest edition of Criminology & Public Policy, a journal of the American Society of Criminology.

It keeps the locations confidential, but indicates each by citing them as Northeast, West, or South.

Police officers’ responses to crime victims are often complicated by “officer biases that can be counterproductive to victim needs,” the study says.

The study cites an earlier research paper, entitled Police Officer Schema of Sexual Assault Reports: Real Rape, Ambiguous Cases, and False Reports, to provide examples of such biases.

“For example, in sexual assault cases, officers are influenced by schemas that exist in both societal and police culture about what constitutes consent, ‘real rape,’ and the view that ambiguous or false claims are a common occurrence,” the authors wrote.

The study also discusses responses by law enforcement that hinder survivors’ trust in coming forward.

It notes some officers believe “that certain reports are a waste of police resources (as with false rape claims), that there is not enough evidence of a crime, or that the victimization experience was not a ‘true’ crime incident.”

These police responses to reports of victimization can lead to victims believing they are not being heard or understood, the study argues.

Victims trafficked from other countries who find themselves in the U.S. reported that they distrusted law enforcement because the police in their home countries are known to be corrupt and violent.

An even bigger concern for many of these survivors is the fear of being deported, “even if they have a visa.”

In one police agency in the Northeast, a detective told researchers that when officers happen to work a sex trafficking case during routine duties, they may not have the proper training to reach the actual human trafficking unit and, therefore, the right officers never get access to the case.

That detective added that their department could “…do better in training these officers about how to ask questions.”

Improper training was also apparent when, even though some police officers interviewed acknowledged the challenges of victims not being forward with information upon initial interviews, “potential sex trafficking victims are sometimes arrested on prostitution charges in the hope that they would receive the help needed to disclose their victimization,” the study said.

“In the South, arrest was the primary mechanism local law enforcement used to convince sex trafficking victims to provide information.”

Again, this kind of response to reports of victimization can lead to victims believing they are not being heard or understood.

Moreover, when victims find the courage to leave or escape a dangerous trafficking situation, they often need help to secure, “…housing, financial assistance, clothing, food, and other basic needs.”

Survivors interviewed expressed less desire to seek justice and engage with the criminal justice process, simply because they would rather put their energy into securing basic needs first, the authors said.

The study included recommendations to police departments to better help survivors of human trafficking that included:

  • Refer or directly aid the survivors into securing housing, getting financial assistance, and other basic needs;
  • Follow a “victim-centered approach” that begins with understanding of trauma;
  • Modify investigative techniques for comfort and trust; and,
  • Utilize non–law enforcement agencies such as mental health professionals.

The full study can be accessed here free for 30 days.

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