Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice Issues Report on Human Trafficking

June 16, 2008

Report available on Northeastern’s Web site

BOSTON – A team of researchers at Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice, in collaboration with Arizona State University and Sam Houston State University, has issued a report about the incidence of and response to human trafficking in the United States.  Lead by principal investigators Assistant Professor Amy Farrell, Ph.D., and Associate Dean Jack McDevitt, the researchers conducted a random survey of law enforcement agencies throughout the United States to better understand how agencies identify and respond to suspected cases of human trafficking.  Previous research has provided limited information on human trafficking cases, from specific jurisdictions, while this survey provides the first comprehensive national look at how local, state and county law enforcement agencies respond to human trafficking.

The report, entitled “Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement Responses to Human Trafficking,” was made possible by a grant from the National Institute of Justice and is now available online at: http://www.humantrafficking.neu.edu/news_reports/reports/

Human trafficking is considered one of the most brutal violations of human rights. Recently, the federal government has made it a priority to prosecute human trafficking at all law enforcement agency levels.  The Department of Justice estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked annually into the United States, but with limited information about the prevalence of the problem, these numbers are only estimates. This study provides the first comprehensive count of how often law enforcement agencies come into contract with incidents of human trafficking in their local communities. 

The first part of this report details how law enforcement agencies perceive human trafficking and how they investigate such cases. The National Law Enforcement Human Trafficking Survey was sent to a random sample of approximately 3,000 state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies in the United States. The results indicate that all types of law enforcement agencies, large and small, have investigated at least one case of human trafficking, but local law enforcement agencies perceive human trafficking as rare or non-existent in their jurisdiction.  In addition, agencies in larger jurisdictions are more likely to distinguish human trafficking as a problem in their area, as evidenced by the fact that more than half of the agencies serving large jurisdictions have investigated human trafficking cases. 

“The data clearly shows that while many perceive human trafficking to be rare, a larger than expected proportion of law enforcement agencies have investigated one or more cases of human trafficking,” said Farrell, the Associate Director of the Institute on Race and Justice and Assistant Professor in the College of Criminal Justice. “The data from this survey suggest that if agencies prepare their officers to identify cases of human trafficking and provide resources for investigations their agencies are quite likely to find cases and arrest offenders.” 

The federal government also funds human trafficking task forces, made up of Federal, State and local law enforcement, and local service providers. Agencies associated with these task forces generally have higher reporting and response rates due to more available training, personnel and protocols.  Small agencies are less likely than larger law enforcement agencies and task force agencies to have specialized human trafficking units or policies.

The second part of the project involved a detailed survey for those agencies who had reported the investigation of a case of human trafficking.  Between 2000 and 2006, the number of human trafficking investigations climbed from 175 reported cases to 750 in 2006.  A majority of the agencies reported spending more time on sex trafficking cases, and approximately 62% of all trafficking victims in these investigations were under the age of 25.  In addition, the majority of the victims involved in sex trafficking were female, and for those agencies who reported labor trafficking cases, more victims were male. 

A large majority of law enforcement agencies who had identified cases of human trafficking in their jurisdiction – 92% – reported a connection between human trafficking and other criminal networks.  About 52% of the cases of human trafficking were identified during the course of an investigation for another crime, such as drug abuse, prostitution or domestic violence. The data also shows that law enforcement agencies reported that many human trafficking investigations do not result in an arrest, but when they do, a conviction is highly likely. 

The study also looked at the multi-agency human trafficking task forces to better understand how the federal government is working to bring together federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies to combat human trafficking.  There are currently 39 task forces functioning nationally with a focus on a victim-centered response.  The study found that when a task force is involved, a case of human trafficking is more likely to be investigated, resulting in higher rates of arrests and federal charges than non-task force agency human trafficking reported cases. 

The team took a particular look at three multi-agency task force case studies – in Boston, Phoenix and Houston. In Boston, they looked at how the Boston Police Department is involved in proactively identifying youth at risk for sex trafficking.  In the Houston, Texas area, the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA) has developed and distributed guidelines for how to respond to human trafficking victims.  Third, in Phoenix, Arizona, the Phoenix Task Force has provided training to local agencies to help them better identify cases of human trafficking.   

The data shows some common obstacles among multi-agency task forces, including defining and identifying human trafficking victims and a lack of communication among task force group members.  Other issues that arose were how to align common goals when certain members have other responsibilities, as well as the complexity and length of time that is involved with human trafficking cases.

Based on that data, the researchers have outlined 5 steps that, when taken, could help improve the identification and response to human trafficking in the United States. 

“The data from this research provides great insight into how law enforcement agencies identify and respond to human trafficking cases, and we hope to build on that data and develop new policies that can lead to the freedom of victims of human trafficking,” added McDevitt, the Associate Dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern and Director of the Institute on Race and Justice.

For more information about this report and Northeastern's research on human trafficking, please contact Jenny Eriksen at (617) 373-2802 or via email at j.eriksen@neu.edu.

About Northeastern University                          

Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston.  Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university’s distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions. For more information, please visit www.northeastern.edu.

For more information, please contact Jenny Catherine Eriksen at 617-373-2802 or at j.eriksen@neu.edu.

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