Why are Human Trafficking Cases Difficult to Identify and Prosecute?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)


For a variety of reasons, human trafficking cases are more difficult to identify than other crime types. Here are some of the most common barriers.

Lack of human trafficking awareness spans every segment of society, including victims. Most victims of trafficking don’t attach the term human trafficking to their own victimization, so they rarely self-identify as a trafficking victim. I know of only one case where a victim walked into a police station and announced, “I’m a victim of human trafficking, and I want to file a report.” And in this particular situation, the victim had already met with an attorney who told the victim exactly what to do and say. Victims usually don’t know about human trafficking, just as most people in general don’t know about human trafficking.

When victims do report being victimized, they usually report a different type of crime; they say they were “forced into prostitution” or “forced to work” against their will. They may say they were threatened with physical violence or actually assaulted, but they are reporting as victims of assault, not trafficking.

Why is this lack of self-identification important? Because if a crime is not reported, there is no record of its occurrence; it doesn’t exist in the quantitative sense.

Most often, the response to any criminal activity begins with someone reporting a crime, usually by dialing 911. Most local police officers and sheriff’s deputies perform what is referred to as “reactive policing”; they react to a reported crime. (While federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] and Homeland Security Investigation/Immigration and Customs Enforcement [HSI/ICE] also conduct human trafficking investigations, most victims of crime contact local law enforcement agencies to report their victimization.) Lack of reporting is a fundamental reason for this common statement by police leadership: “We don’t have human trafficking in our community.”

In addition to the lack of human trafficking awareness among its victims, police officers and detectives also fail to recognize trafficking—usually due to inadequate training on the topic. If a victim reports being “forced into prostitution,” but the officer taking the report or investigating the case doesn’t know the difference between prostitution and trafficking, the case may never get examined as a case of human trafficking. Even greater difficulty can be found in identifying cases of labor trafficking, as most law enforcement officers never receive any training on labor law or violations of wage and hour employment regulations.

Training officers and detectives is both time consuming and expensive for law enforcement agencies, even if the training takes only an hour or two. Many states mandate training on specific topics (such as use of force, weapons or driver training, and updates on CPR and First Aid), leaving agencies with little time to train their officers on new emerging topics such as trafficking. Consider this: If victims don’t report being trafficking victims and the police don’t know how to recognize trafficking incidents, then few—if any—cases are identified, leading police leadership to believe trafficking is not occurring in the community. So why should they train their officers?

Mandated training sounds like the answer, but how “mandated” training is enforced must be considered when weighing this option. For example, in 2012, the California human trafficking law was modified to include a provision that “Every law enforcement officer who is assigned field or investigative duties shall complete a minimum of two hours training . . . by July 1, 2014, or within six months of being assigned to that position, whichever is later.” The intent of this provision should be applauded. But because the mandate did not include a specific penalty on agencies for not providing this training, the majority of officers in California still have not received two hours of training on human trafficking, despite a variety of efforts to create and disseminate training tools to law enforcement agencies. Abolitionists hoping to mandate training and awareness (at least at the state level) should keep this example in mind.

While it is critical for law enforcement officers to understand human trafficking, it is just as important that victim advocates and VSPs (Victim Services Providers) also receive training on how to recognize potential trafficking victims. Often, victims of sexual assault or domestic violence initially reach out to shelters or crisis centers for help, and advocates help the victims report the crimes to police. By learning to recognize human trafficking, advocates and service providers can help victims more accurately report these crimes.

Finally, the critical role of the local prosecutor’s office must be examined. Prosecutors (and public defenders) knowledgeable on trafficking may identify an incident the investigating detective failed to recognize. In addition, prosecutors who have received training specifically on trafficking laws and prosecution tactics will be more likely to charge offenders using trafficking statutes—as opposed to using other criminal statutes. If prosecutors charge offenders under a trafficking statute, offenders will be found guilty of trafficking, confirming the existence of human trafficking in the community.

In all fairness, when deciding what statutes to charge in any criminal case, prosecutors must consider the knowledge base of the potential jury and strategically choose statutes likely to return a successful conviction. The perspective of the jury members and the importance the community places on responding to human trafficking also impact the decisions the prosecutor will make. The role of the jury provides one more reason for increasing public awareness of human trafficking: An educated public brings basic knowledge to the jury pool.

These are the core reasons trafficking incidents are hard to identify, prosecute, and ultimately, count as human trafficking cases and trafficking-related convictions. The old chicken and egg analogy applies here: If trafficking cases are not identified, then they must not be occurring, which means we don’t need to provide training to investigators and prosecutors (without which they will not identify cases), which in turn perpetuates the belief that trafficking is not occurring in the community.

Of course this isn’t the case. Trafficking can occur anywhere. If law enforcement is not finding trafficking in the community, law enforcement is probably not looking for trafficking in the community.

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