Just how big of a problem is human trafficking in the United States? It’s hard to say, because state and regional law enforcement records likely reflect less than 10 percent of trafficking victims in the area, according to new research by Amy Farrell, a Northeastern University professor who studies human trafficking.
Farrell and her colleagues came across some glaring problems within the very structure of crime reporting, the most immediate of which, Farrell says, is that state and local police often don’t have the specialized training necessary to identify human trafficking when they see it.
If they do, it can be difficult to persuade a victim of human trafficking to collaborate with a police investigation when such a victim is primarily concerned with more immediate needs, Farrell says.
“People who have been victims of human trafficking aren’t necessarily interested in furthering a police investigation into their captor when they need housing, and medical treatment, and a job,” she says.
In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, law enforcement agencies reported more than 1,200 cases of human trafficking in the United States, according to crime statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that are publicly available. But the figure is likely much, much lower than the actual number of human trafficking victims in the U.S. that year, says Farrell, who is the associate director and associate professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, and whose most recent research was funded by the National Institute of Justice.
Farrell, along with Northeastern doctoral students Matthew Kafafian and Sarah Lockwood, and colleagues from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the University of Houston-Downtown, examined the crime reporting process in three different police jurisdictions across the country to see whether law enforcement officials had been properly trained to identify human trafficking, and how they kept track of the incidents they did identify.
“What we were exploring was: What does this look like from a local law enforcement perspective?” Farrell says.
They found that even when an officer identifies a victim of human trafficking and that victim is willing and able to work with the officer to further the case, the police district might not have the necessary tracking system to properly record the crime as human trafficking, Farrell says.
The FBI started collecting data about sex- and labor trafficking in each state in 2013, but many state and local police districts didn’t have the option to classify a crime as human trafficking in their centralized reporting databases until years later, Farrell says.
“If a state crime reporting system literally doesn’t have a box to check that classifies something as human trafficking, all those crimes have to be classified as something else,” Farrell says. Sometimes, sex trafficking cases are therefore misclassified as prostitution, she says. This means people who are victims of a crime can be treated as offenders.
“This results in major misclassification of trafficking cases, and leads to an incredibly massive undercount,” Farrell says.
State and local authorities have come up with workarounds, such as classifying sex trafficking in broader terms such as “investigation of a person” or as general sex offense crimes. But, such catchall categories can get so bloated with miscellaneous crimes that cases can “disappear into them,” Farrell says.
All of these factors result in chronic underreporting of human trafficking, Farrell says. Based on statistical estimates of the true number of human trafficking cases in each jurisdiction she and her colleagues studied, law enforcement records captured less than 10 percent of trafficking victims, according to the report.
Farrell and her colleagues recommend continued training for law enforcement officials on how to identify human trafficking victims, and how to refer those victims to the services they need. This is especially true for victims of labor trafficking, which can be harder to spot, Farrell says.
They also recommend increased collaboration and information-sharing among law enforcement agencies, because trafficking crimes can often cross police jurisdictions.
“These are difficult crimes,” Farrell says. “It’s taken the field of law enforcement some time to develop some expertise here, and we’re moving in a positive direction. But it’s slow.”