Human trafficking victims distrust police and rarely seek help as they think force is biased, ill-trained
Researchers examined police responses to human trafficking crimes in three US communities that varied in region, population size, and crime rates to determine why victims are reluctant to seek help
Victims of human trafficking often do not trust the police and rarely seek their assistance as they believe that the police hold biases and stereotypes about them and they are not trained adequately. The study, by researchers at Northeastern University and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is based on a review of human trafficking investigations and interviews with police and service providers in three US communities - Northeast, West, and South.
The study - funded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice - identified and coded 420 human trafficking incidents in the Northeast, 193 in the West, and 258 in the South, which were reported to the police between 2013 and 2016. In the three sites, the pool of human trafficking victims that come to the attention of law enforcement is small. Only a fraction of the incidents in which human victims are identified result in the arrest of suspects or are classified internally as a human trafficking offense.
According to the researchers, the failure of specialized investigators to make arrests or classify human trafficking victimization accurately may be influenced by biases officers hold about the offense and the potential victims. “Specialized human trafficking investigators suggested that front-line officers and investigators from other units hold biases about the people who are at risk for human trafficking that impair their identification of victimization. Nearly all law enforcement interviewees raised concerns that some sex trafficking victims were misclassified as “prostitutes” or as “prostitution offenders.” This was particularly acute in the case of adult sex trafficking, where detectives explained that officers both inside and outside specialized units had to change their perceptions about prostitution,” says the study published in Criminology & Public Policy, a publication of the American Society of Criminology.
A detective from the West explains to the researchers: “We (in law enforcement) were very traditional in seeing prostitution as prostitution. Consenting individuals, breaking the law together basically. When we started the human trafficking unit, this whole division and the department was a significant movement to a significant amount of training on human trafficking. That’s when we started to really learn and change the culture within the department that it was not consensual. That, you know, we had a significant population set that was there, because of circumstances that are forcing them.”
What is further shocking is that even when investigators are aware of human trafficking, they struggle to distinguish individuals engaged in sex work as perpetrators from people who may be victims of human trafficking, researchers say. A detective in the Northeast explains to the researchers that it is more difficult for the police to recognize victimization when people do not fit the “stereotype of an iconic human trafficking victim”, particularly when victims do not express gratitude about being “rescued” by the police or are not young, White, and US citizens.
“Central to their public safety mission, police officers have an obligation to help victims feel safe, assess their immediate needs, connect them with providers who can help, and give them opportunities to tell their stories without revictimization. When this doesn’t happen, as is the case with many victims of human trafficking, victims of crime grow to distrust police, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of detecting and preventing crime,” says Amy Farrell, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University, who led the study.
The researchers found that the police struggle to identify and respond to this new type of victim, and human trafficking victimizations are more commonly identified by non-specialized officers who encounter a trafficking victim during their routine duties. Most of these officers are not trained on what signs to look for or on how to approach or engage a potential victim if they suspect trafficking. This failure to recognize and respond to human trafficking incidents offenses raises concerns about justice for victims, says the team. “Potential human trafficking victims will be less likely to receive specialized services that seek to address the complex trauma resulting from many human trafficking incidents without official identification,” they add.
Service providers and police interviewees both noted the harmful impact of police biases and stereotypes about human trafficking victims. The researchers say these fears prevent disclosure and inhibit victims providing specific details of their victimization to the police, which further limits the ability of police to identify and appropriately respond in these cases.
According to researchers, the ability of law enforcement to identify human trafficking victimization is critical as victims rarely self-report their victimization, and those around them such as family members are unlikely to bring victimization to the police's attention. As one provider in the South told the police, "I have ever met anyone who has walked in and said, ‘I am a survivor of human trafficking'.’’
Analysis shows that none of the human trafficking incidents investigated by the police in the Northeast during the study period and only 8% of incidents identified in the West came to the attention of law enforcement through victim self-reporting.
Why do victims not seek help from the police?
The findings show that victims of human trafficking are unlikely to reach out to the police for help owing to significant trauma, feeling negative about themselves, fear of the police, and in some cases because they are “pre-contemplative about leaving the trafficking situation.” “65% of law enforcement interviewees discussed the challenge of getting victims to disclose details of their victimization or to cooperate with the police investigation. As one detective from the Northeast noted, ‘They aren’t even going to identify themselves as victims. They’re just trying to survive, find a place for themselves, to move on, figure out their own life. They don’t feel wanted.’”
The researchers say victims’ reluctance to disclose the details of their victimization to the police complicates both the identification and the investigation of human trafficking because the police rely heavily on victim information to determine whether a situation of commercial sex or labor involves elements of human trafficking.
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 team says the practice of arresting human trafficking victims, for their safety or as a mechanism to build a criminal case, threatens the long-term healing and recovery of victims and is in opposition to what victims need. “Arresting victims, even as a means to keep them safe, forces them deeper into the criminal justice system and impedes victim recovery and independence as they now must deal with the stigmatizing impact of having a criminal record,” says the study.
Researchers state that when engagement with the police is perceived as unhelpful and potentially dangerous, victims of human trafficking are not likely to seek assistance. Investigators also acknowledged that despite their best intentions, some victims fear to report their victimization because they are concerned about being arrested or about being poorly treated by the police. A law enforcement personnel from the West told the researchers that most people associate them with criminal prosecution, and “they don’t see us as rescuers as much as they see us as a threat to their civil liberties.”
Further, most victims do not want to be labeled, found the team. However, victims are often given no choice but to identify either as a trafficking victim that possesses no agency or as a prostitute/offender with full agency. “Human trafficking victimizations are highly nuanced and complex, and victim experiences are commonly misunderstood and misidentified. Therefore, the victim has less desire to seek justice and fully engage in the criminal justice process,” they add.
Urgent need to connect victims to services
According to the research, when victims leave trafficking situations, they often have to secure housing, financial assistance, clothing, food, and other basic needs. In addition, many have long histories of trauma and victimization that make service needs more acute. Accordingly, service providers and law enforcement highlighted the need for victims to receive services and be stabilized to meet their basic needs, albeit for different aims.
“Police interviewees stressed the need to connect victims to services primarily for the purpose of securing cooperation and developing a case against the perpetrator. Working with victim service providers is another tool for law enforcement to meet the needs of survivors and offers them a chance to try and engage them in the criminal justice process,” say the researchers.
Service providers, on the other hand, were more concerned with securing the survivors’ immediate and long-term needs. Social service providers recognize that victims need to have at least their basic needs met to be able to begin recovery and not be revictimized and exploited. “What human trafficking survivors with criminal records want from the justice system is to have their records vacated or expunged so they can gain full stability and independence. Arrest leaves victims with fewer employment opportunities because they have a criminal record. Policies should be created so that victims who were arrested on charges related to offenses committed during their victimization could easily have the charges vacated,” the researchers say. They add, “additionally, communities should discourage the arrest of potential crime victims, even for their own safety. Doing so requires the development of secure housing and appropriate services to create safe spaces where victims can process their victimization and address their trauma.”