Identifying Victims when Limited Data Exists


January 5, 2015

How do communities know if a certain crime is occurring? Most look for traditional data indicators such as calls for service and arrests by law enforcement. However, what if those traditional actions don’t occur? This is often the case with human trafficking.

Research indicates human trafficking can be a crime hiding in our communities. Unlike traditional crime victims, human trafficking victims are modern day slaves and are victimized over and over again by their traffickers. Victims’ personal freedoms are restricted or eliminated and they are often physically beaten, threatened with personal harm or harm to their family, sexually assaulted and emotionally abused. Often told they are the ones committing crime and will be arrested, victims stay out of sight of society’s traditional observation spots.

Victims may present through other types of criminal activity, underscoring why human trafficking is such a complex crime. Law enforcement and researchers are learning that a case of robbery, domestic disturbance or runaway may in fact be human trafficking when examined more closely. Such was the case in Albert Lea, MN. An assault case between two females turned out to have elements of sex trafficking.

Two women, who referred to themselves as exotic dancers, got into an argument. The dispute escalated and one of the women was dragged a half mile down the highway outside her car. In an interview, the victim stated she and the other women had traveled to the area from Milwaukee, WI, on an exotic dance circuit to make money for her boyfriend’s bail. She said she’d been sold into “the life” at age 15 by her mother and now, at age 30, she wanted to get out.

In addition, knowing key questions to ask is a first step in identifying victims and their traffickers. Basic awareness training for law enforcement and citizens can improve knowledge of human trafficking and increase reliable information on potential human trafficking in a community. In Clearwater, FL, awareness training conducted for high school-aged teenagers, parent/teacher associations and student resource officers led to information identifying traffickers and potential victims of trafficking in the community.

Various studies point to a variety of data indicators a community can review to help determine the potential of human trafficking in their communities.

  • Transportation Data– Human trafficking is a transient crime, where victims and perpetrators move around to avoid detection and find new demand. Reviewing transportation-related data can help identify victims.
  • Health Care Data– Health care data is another possible avenue for communities to explore. Research indicates higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases in relation to stable marriage rates may indicate an increase in unprotected sex, which could mean more interaction with the commercial sex trade and therefore sex trafficking victims. Data also shows traffickers may seek health care for their victims since they are not able to conduct business if the victim is not well enough to work.
  • Law Enforcement Data– It’s important to expand the review of law enforcement data because human trafficking leads can be found in other criminal activity. Previous police reports documenting other criminal activity are an excellent source of data. Patrol officers may document incidents of human trafficking, even if they do not recognize it as human trafficking at the time. It is important to have a trained law enforcement officer or detective conduct periodic report reviews in search of potential trafficking incidents. He/she should also serve as the agency’s central point of contact for all human trafficking related information, assisting in identifying patterns of incidents within the community.

Law enforcement’s monitoring of the Internet and social media sites may also uncover possible human trafficking. These tools provide out of sight opportunities for traffickers to find victims, market and advertise services. They also provide a vehicle for patrons to seek services and share information for other patrons to avoid law enforcement tactics.

Social services, faith-based institutions, schools, youth-focused organizations like child services and foster care can be key to identifying vulnerable populations like homeless, runaways and throwaways. Increasing awareness with these stakeholder groups can be instrumental in identifying potential victims.

Detecting human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, takes a proactive approach. Expanding awareness and prevention efforts to criminal justice agencies, strategic stakeholder groups and the community provides the most effective method for identifying victims. Utilizing nontraditional data indicators with traditional law enforcement information offers communities the opportunity to bring victims out of hiding and prosecute traffickers.

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