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Human Trafficking and American Law Enforcement

Updated: Mar 15

Policymakers need to do more to allow police to combat human trafficking.

State and local law enforcement officers face numerous challenges identifying and reporting human trafficking. Criminal Justice researchers, Amy Farrell and Jessica Reichert, found that human trafficking victims tend not to come to the police for various reasons, including but not limited to death threats, debt obligations, poor memory of the location of their attack or the appearance of their attacker, deportation fears and language barriers. 

Many law enforcement agencies also lack training on human trafficking and the many different factors that play into it. In 2014, The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to combat sex and labor trafficking in America, reported that only 32 states mandate training of law enforcement officers on human trafficking crimes. Without the proper training, police are highly unlikely to identify trafficking victims during the course of routine police activities. 

Scholars have noted that many officers are hindered by “cultural blinders” that prevent them from recognizing and prioritizing human trafficking above other criminal cases. Studies show that many officers misidentify human trafficking victims, as they hold expectations for and make assumptions about what human trafficking victims “typically” look like. 

People think of a highly vulnerable, young woman who is forcefully trafficked for sexual exploitation, as is seen in movies, on the news and even in many police training materials. This certainly happens, but trafficking is far more complex. 

Professors of Criminal Justice studies, Andrea Nichols and Erin Hall, explain that many law enforcement officers tend to read the definition of human trafficking as if it were referring to victims with “illegal immigrant” status. It seems these officials strongly associate sex trafficking with smuggling, migration or crossing borders. As such, it's much more likely that only international victims will be reported, while domestic victims remain ignored throughout the United States.

Law enforcement in the United States also receives little funding for new technology, which is a huge obstacle in holding effective investigations. Human trafficking investigations rely heavily on modern technology for data mining and analytics. 

A study conducted by Georgia Tech University student Julia Deeb-Swihart and professors Alex Endert and Amy Bruckman found that only 14 percent of police departments in the U.S. have the proper technology for sharing and searching for data across silos. Also, only 10 percent have the tools necessary for data-mining, and a mere 5 percent have those which uncover connections between data points. 

Overall, I believe that the overarching issue comes back to a lack of proper technology, as the inadequate software standards across multiple platforms makes sharing information impossible and creates a serious barrier to the success of human trafficking investigations.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Deeb-Swihart, Julia, Alex Endert, and Amy Bruckman. "Understanding law enforcement strategies and needs for combating human trafficking." In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2019, pp. 1-14.

Farrell, Amy, and Jessica Reichert. "Using US law-enforcement data: Promise and limits in measuring human trafficking." Journal of Human Trafficking, vol. 3, no. 1, 2017, pp. 39-60.

Nichols, Andrea J., and Erin C. Heil. "Challenges to identifying and prosecuting sex trafficking cases in the Midwest United States." Feminist Criminology, vol. 10, no. 1, 2015, pp. 7-35.

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