Author Archives: John Vanek

About John Vanek

I am a sergeant with the San Jose (CA) Police Department. I manage the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force. The Task Force is comprised of various Federal and local law enforcement agencies committed to identifying and rescuing victims of human trafficking. We partner with the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking to provide assistance to trafficking victims. Since 2006 the Task Force and Coalition have trained over 4,000 individuals dedicated to combating modern-day slavery.

Is the Super Bowl the “largest human trafficking incident” in the United States?

(This concludes the excerpts from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery, I’ve been posting for the past weeks. I hope you have found these useful, and insightful. Human trafficking – and the response to trafficking – are both complex topics that require study and understanding if we want be be effective in our actions. I end this series with perhaps the most common myth about human trafficking as we just a few days away from the Super Bowl. As mentioned, multi-agency task forces are formed to operate in the week up to, and including, Super Bowl weekend. As I write this colleagues have already initiated operations in Minneapolis, and with success.)


In the run-up to the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas, the Texas Attorney General (now Governor) Greg Abbott made several comments regarding human trafficking and the Super Bowl including, “It’s commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”[i]

Like any good myth, this comment went viral and took on a life of its own. It is now common in the weeks before the Super Bowl to see news articles and social media posts promoting this myth. Yet little evidence exists supporting this claim.

The Arizona State University School of Social Work closely examined human trafficking surrounding both the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey and the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona.[ii] Though the results were inconclusive, this study includes a useful examination of online advertising, levels of demand, and other topics related to online advertising of commercial sex. The report, issued in February 2015, states,

In years past, media reports have speculated that the Super Bowl was one of the most prominent national events where sex trafficking occurs; however, researchers have yet to substantiate these statements. While there is no empirical evidence that the Super Bowl causes an increase in sex trafficking compared to other days and events throughout the year, there was a noticeable increase in those activities intended to locate victims from both law enforcement and service provision organizations.

The statement includes a significant observation: the increase in law enforcement and VSP activities aimed at locating victims. Any increase in effort to locate victims and traffickers should increase results. This—by itself—should not be seen as proof of an increase in human trafficking around the Super Bowl.

In recent years temporary task forces have been created within the host city to focus on human trafficking, typically operating from the weekend before the game through Super Bowl Sunday, about ten days. The most basic research methodology would demand a control study with the same effort being made, for the same amount of time, in the same or a similar city. The Arizona State University study points to this lack of control groups and other research challenges that need to be addressed.

Exacerbating this myth are headlines like this from a 2015 Los Angeles Times article, “National sex trafficking sting nets nearly 600 arrests before Super Bowl.”[iii] The casual reader may believe the article cites arrests in the host city, but the article actually addresses sting operations in 17 states during the two weeks before the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl, like any other major event in a large city, provides an opportunity for crime to increase, including sex trafficking. Dispelling this myth is not to say trafficking doesn’t occur at all at the Super Bowl, but focusing on specific events can give the impression that anti-trafficking activities are important only at specific times. But we know the truth: Sex and labor trafficking occur every day, and efforts need to be consistent every day of the year.

[i] Jervis, A. (2011, February 1). Child sex rings spike during Super Bowl week. USA TODAY. Available at

[ii] Roe-Sepowitz, D., & Gallagher, J. (2015). Exploring the impact of the Super Bowl on sex trafficking. Phoenix: Arizona State University School of Social Work. Available at

[iii] Queally, J. (2015, February 2). National sex trafficking sting nets nearly 600 arrests before Super Bowl. Los Angeles Times. Available at

Do High Prison Sentences Reduce Human Trafficking?

(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.)


The impulse to imprison traffickers is understandable. Traffickers who exploit the vulnerable—particularly the youngest victims—should be imprisoned for a very long time indeed. That is my opinion, and one shared by most people.

In theory, prison sentencing helps prevent crime in two ways. First, incarceration removes the opportunity for the offender to commit crime; a person in prison can’t commit crime. The second is achieved through deterrence. A potential offender may decide not to engage in a particular criminal activity for fear of going to prison. In theory, the higher the potential sentence, the higher the level of deterrence.

But there is very little empirical evidence supporting the contention that higher prison sentences prevent crime, and in 25 years of police work, I never met a criminal who examined the penal code to check the potential prison sentences before committing a crime.

Raising prison sentences alone will have limited—if any—impact on human trafficking. To be clear, I’m not opposed to high prison sentences. As a police officer investigating sex crimes, I was always trying to get the highest sentence possible depending upon the background of the offender and the circumstances of the crime. But high prison sentencing standards alone should not be promoted as an effective way of preventing crime.

The most effective means of using criminal sentencing to impact human trafficking is to prosecute and imprison for human trafficking. As examined previously, the biggest challenge in law enforcement is training those on the front lines to effectively investigate, prosecute, and obtain convictions for human trafficking charges. Before campaigning for higher prison sentences, we should examine how often current human trafficking statutes are being used and increase the awareness and expertise of police and prosecutors. These actions will increase human trafficking convictions.

Prison sentences also carry the high costs associated with incarceration. As a result, legislators may resist increasing prison sentences simply based on expense. This obstacle presents another reason abolitionists might be more effective by focusing on how current laws are employed—rather than on raising prison sentences.

I offer an additional thought, purely my own opinion, based upon my experience assisting victims of many different types of crime. Some people seek higher sentencing standards for sex trafficking than labor trafficking, usually viewing commercial sex exploitation as a form of sexual assault and therefore more heinous than labor exploitation. But consider these situations: An 8-year-old girl is forced to work as a domestic servant, beaten and abused until she is freed four years later; or the woman enslaved as a domestic servant for eighteen years—over half her life—before being identified. Should their victimizations be deemed less heinous because they were not forced into commercial sex? I’ll leave this question open for discussion.

Alas, there are no quick fixes to modern slavery. The complexities should now be apparent. There is a popular anti-trafficking slogan used to point out the difficulty of identifying trafficking victims within the hidden world of modern slavery: “Look beneath the surface.” When examining our collective approach to modern slavery, we also need to look beneath the surface for what can be truly effective.

How Do I Learn About the Trafficking Response in My Community?

(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.)


Determining the current response efforts in your community can be easy or difficult, but is the first step for an abolitionist interested in getting involved.

If you are lucky, a quick Internet search for human trafficking task force (or coalition), human trafficking events, or human trafficking victim assistance along with the name of your city or community will return websites for local organizations involved in the response. Contact them and ask to speak with the person involved in anti-trafficking work. Often, in multisector teams, this person works under the title coordinator. If you find an organization involved in anti-trafficking efforts they should be able to connect you with others including the local task force or coalition if one exists. Ask them what response activities are in place and how you can get involved.

For clarification, though multisector team members work closely with one another, most of the time they do not physically share the same office. Typically, team members operate from the office of their organization, and the members come together at monthly or quarterly meetings. But as anti-trafficking efforts grow, more task forces strive for the best practice of co-location, in which local and federal law enforcement officers, a trafficking victim advocate, and the task force coordinator share office space for ease of communication and coordination.

In addition to searching for local anti-trafficking organizations, connect with other members of the community. For example, if you know a local police officer or deputy, ask what they know about their agency’s response to trafficking. Attending public events focusing on human trafficking and related topics is an excellent way to become involved. These events usually highlight the work of local organizations. After attending several of these events, a clear picture of the current response efforts should emerge.

Contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (888-373-7888) and ask if they know of organizations in your area. FBOs (faith-based organizations) are also good resources for learning about local efforts.

If you cannot find any anti-trafficking efforts in your community, start one yourself! If current data doesn’t exist in your community, perform an assessment. Contact all of the agencies, NGOs, and FBOs you can find and ask them whether they have served or assisted victims of trafficking. Collect as much data as you can (without asking for any personal information about the victims) with the promise to share your findings with every organization, local law enforcement, and the press. This is a great way to initiate a community response to trafficking. You can also contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center for data on incidents they have collected and information on trafficking laws within your state.

If you cannot find local events, organize a day- or weekend-long conference. This is the best way to bring together and highlight the efforts of local organizations, which may be too busy to plan and coordinate an event.

A common error made by passionate abolitionists is launching efforts without taking the time to learn what is already in place, possibly duplicating efforts, or more likely, launching an effort before the need exists. For example, many people wish to aid victims of trafficking by opening a shelter. But for a shelter to succeed, there must be identified victims, and the agencies identifying the victims must know about the shelter and be confident in the shelter staff’s background, expertise, and reliability. Forming the partnerships required to create a shelter takes incredible effort. In addition, the facility and shelter staff may have to meet certain state regulations and criteria before opening. Do the research before embarking on any endeavor, however well-intended.

In all cases, abolitionists should continue to study trafficking and response practices both within the United States and internationally; there is always more to learn, and a great idea in one location may work just as well in another.

Where some people find frustration in the lack of anti-trafficking efforts, others see opportunity. One of the most exciting aspects of the anti-trafficking movement is the field is wide open to new ideas and efforts. Many creative and passionate abolitionists have launched collaborative efforts in their hometown or on the other side of the world. Many have created new ways of fighting slavery. Find your passion, align it with your skills, and make something happen!

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.

Why is Collaboration so Difficult to Achieve?

(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.)


If a multisector response is necessary and no single agency can respond to slavery alone, we must have partnerships to succeed. So why is this collaboration so difficult? Ask anyone involved in the response to trafficking, and the odds are they will say working across agencies and professional sectors can be the most challenging work they encounter.

Collaboration is among the most popular words used today. Politicians state their desire to “collaborate with colleagues across the aisle”; public agency leaders plan to “work in collaboration with local community partners.” Everyone wants to do it, but what does it mean to collaborate?

Collaboration should be viewed as something far greater than cooperation or coordination, and we can distinguish the differences by examining how much effort or commitment the work entails and what the final results will accomplish.

Cooperation can require very little commitment, as little as saying, “My organization opposes trafficking, as does yours. We are cooperating in our opposition.” Coordination implies we are supporting and complementing one another’s efforts and at some level, usually means adjusting what, how, or when we do something to help both of us achieve our goals. In anti-trafficking work, this might include law enforcement sharing information (which they are loath to do with anyone) with a VSP (Victim Services Provider) about an upcoming anti-trafficking operation so the VSP can be prepared to assist victims.

Collaboration goes beyond cooperation or coordination. Collaboration seeks to create long-term relationships and new solutions for complex problems. Looking at how task forces are organized and the diversity of professionals and organizations needed to respond to trafficking, it is clear challenges are inevitable. In the earliest stages of task force creation, establishing a process for group decision-making is critical.

Various factors can contribute to this difficulty. First, each agency’s institutional decision-making system differs. For instance, law enforcement has a clear hierarchal structure and applauds quick decision-making skills, standards that may not transfer well to non-law enforcement organizations. Some organizations may have outdated systems that need to be adapted in order to offer an improved response. For example, a VSP who in the past has worked alone might need to adapt to work with other organizations so together they can more effectively serve the special needs of trafficking victims. Other barriers can include competition over funding, “turf wars” over which organization will handle specific duties, and last but not least, agreeing upon the agency that will be seen as the leader of the task force.

On top of these institutional factors, the individuals responsible for performing the work can bring their own impediments to collaboration, including a lack of desire to engage with organizations and individuals outside their own sector, a lack of belief that trafficking exists within the community they serve, or an inability to envision new ways of addressing problems. Individuals who lack patience or who cannot view problems from another’s perspective will find collaborative work especially challenging. Often these problems fester because in order to address them, some level of collaboration must exist in the first place!

So what is the best way to stack the odds in favor of success? First, those selected for collaborative work should be chosen for their collaborative skills, not necessarily their technical skills. A task force investigator who is not interested in collaboration should focus on investigating cases; another person from the police agency can engage in the collaborative work. The same can be said for VSPs, NGOs, or CBOs involved in the task force. Many good case managers and public outreach coordinators perform their jobs exceptionally well but don’t want to take on collaborative roles and should not be forced into a role they don’t desire. Also, working with others in a collaborative environment takes time—a lot of time. This requirement must be recognized by both the person engaged in collaborative work and by their supervisors and managers.

Organizations involved in anti-trafficking work realize that to be effective, they may have to change their policies and procedures to adapt to the greater good of the task force. Good collaborators can think creatively and see past the effort required to create change—to the increased effectiveness and efficiency that will result. Most importantly, good collaborators are willing to work with others and learn from them, in an effort to find new solutions to complex problems.

The level of inter-agency and cross-sector collaboration necessary for an effective response to human trafficking is uniquely demanding. Everyone involved must understand the challenges of this collaboration. My colleague Kirsten Foot examines this topic in detail in her book, Collaborating Against Human Trafficking: Cross-Sector Challenges and Practices.[i] Kirsten’s book is highly recommended for further study.

[i] Foot, K. (2016). Collaborating against human trafficking: Cross-sector challenges and practices. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

What is a Multisector Response?

(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.)


A multisector (or multidisciplinary) response refers to the multiple professional sectors required for a proper and effective response to human trafficking. This term is an important addition to the abolitionist’s vocabulary since it is commonly used among agencies involved in anti-trafficking work.

If the 4P Paradigm (Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, Partnership) illustrates the potential links between the four areas of anti-trafficking effort, a multisector response with effective partnerships fosters the involvement of many people or organizations with specialized areas of expertise, skills, or specific types of capacities, such as housing for victims. It takes a village, so to speak, to provide the best response possible in a trafficking case.

One simple example helps to illustrate how many different professional disciplines might be involved in providing the services needed by a single victim. Suppose a victim was forced to work as a domestic servant for three years in the United States and is a foreign national whose visa has expired. The case is investigated and prosecuted by federal agencies. Here are the most basic services the victim will need and the professionals and organizations needed to provide them.

  • Short-term housing (shelter provider)
  • Food and clothing (shelter provider)
  • Translation services, if the victim speaks limited English (translator)
  • Immigration assistance to address expired visa (immigration attorney)
  • Medical assistance (medical doctors)
  • Emotional and psychological assistance (doctors, therapists)
  • Assistance to collect wages due from the trafficker (civil attorney)
  • Assistance to contact family members outside the U.S. (U.S. State Department or NGO)
  • Law enforcement to investigate the case (FBI and/or Homeland Security Investigations – HSI)
  • Prosecutors (United States Attorney’s Office)
  • Federal assistance to determine lost wages (U.S. Department of Labor)
  • Access to appropriate cultural, ethnic, religious support (VSP, CBO, or FBO)
  • Long-term housing while the prosecution proceeds (VSP)
  • Case manager who coordinates all of the above on the victim’s behalf (VSP)

These are the minimal needs for one person! In cases with additional victims, or victims with complex needs, this list can quickly lengthen. The specialized skills required when responding to human trafficking can be extremely diverse, though not every case requires each specialization. So how do we best coordinate access to all of the standard and potential services needed when responding to an incident of human trafficking? By creating and sustaining anti-trafficking task forces.

What is Sex Tourism, and is it Trafficking?

(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.)


When hearing the phrase sex tourism, what immediately comes to mind? Usually we envision a white male, probably middle-aged or older, who travels to Asia to engage in sex with children, possibly very young children. While this is sex tourism, it is only the stereotypical image of sex tourism.

We need to adopt a broader definition of sex tourism, one that includes going anywhere to engage in commercial sex with a person whether female or male, of any age.

Traveling away from home reduces the likelihood of discovery, arrest, and being publically exposed and thus removes impediments to paying for sex. And a john who travels to any location to engage in lawful commercial sex is still involved in sex tourism; it just isn’t illegal sex tourism.

While we read about major sporting events and their link to trafficking, other circumstances can just as easily provide the conditions needed for commercial sex, conditions that increase demand—and thereby, supply. Any circumstance that brings a large number of men to an area for a short duration of time, such as conventions or sporting events, may provide the opportunity for traffickers and pimps to exploit the demand for sex by providing the supply: victims of human trafficking. As reported in the Monterey County Weekly in 2011, events such as the ATT Pro-Am and the Concours d’Elegance car show, both of which occur in Pebble Beach, California, have the potential to create the demand and hence, the opportunity for traffickers to provide the “supply” for commercial sex.[i] Trafficking can potentially increase during these and similar types of events.

Some advertisers even suggest the opportunities available once away from home. Euphemisms like, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” may provide some tacit level of approval, allowing the purchaser of sex to rationalize their activity.

Sex tourism should be defined for what it is: an easier opportunity to engage in commercial sex with someone who is likely forced to do so. The term should be used to describe any activity of this nature.

[i] Robinson, R. (2011, July 21). Undocumented women servicing field workers, streetwalkers in seeding motels, high-end flesh sold at high-end events: Sex sells in Monterey County. Monterey County Weekly. Available at: