Law Enforcement as First Responders

Human trafficking is both a domestic and international crime being committed daily around the world. The fact that human trafficking is the modern day slavery cannot be over emphasized.

Local law enforcement agencies often are the first to come into contact with this covert crime. And, as first responders, law enforcement agencies play a critical role in identifying and responding to human trafficking cases.

Law enforcement personnel could be responding to a domestic abuse call which could actually turn out to be a human trafficking case. Officers will only find this out by looking beneath the surface.

A research submitted to the United States Department of Justice in 2006 titled Law Enforcement Response to Human Trafficking and the Implications for Victims: Current Practices and Lesson Learned showed that “the most common roles identified for law enforcement included conducting covert/overt operations, following up on leads, conducting surveillance, and interviewing victims.”

Challenges and Barriers Faced in Trafficking Cases

The report, however, identified some of the challenges that an officer could encounter in the process of helping victims of human trafficking.

Five main barriers were identified:

  1. Distrust for law enforcement
  2. Language barrier
  3. Lack of training or knowledge
  4. Lack of interpreters
  5. Lack of resources

According to the report, an investigator said: Getting the victims to come forward and gaining their trust are challenges. Many do not trust the police and are afraid of being deported.”

While a line officer stated that “Getting victims to trust is hard. They’re very antigovernment. They are use to seeing corrupt cops in their countries, another investigator commented “There is a lack of education at both the local and Federal levels in identifying cases. First responders are also call-driven and do not have time to conduct the detailed interview necessary to uncover the crime.”

 This lack of time to investigate and probe deeper into the situation, according to the report, is related to another barrier, which is seeing the victim as a victim.

“It is difficult to determine a case without talking to the victim…to know if they are forced into prostitution or not. It is often easier to assume they are willing to be in prostitution,” a line officer noted.

The report offered some solutions to the law enforcement agencies, including,

  1. You have to look beneath the surface and recognize that this work requires a lot of patience and time. Investigating these cases is not a quick process.
  2. Law enforcement needs the help of the community to identify victims.
  3. This is an ongoing and increasing crime. The more information and education we can get out about this the better we will do at stamping it out.
  4. The local police agencies are familiar with traditional crimes, like prostitution, but human trafficking requires officers to look through a different filter at a situation they once thought they understood.
  5. Law enforcement should be trained to look for and identify when investigating a potential human trafficking situation: country of origin of potential victims, languages spoken, behavior/body language of potential victims (e.g., nervousness, fear, isolation), lack of personal belongings present, appearance of coercive relationship among parties, lack of freedom of movement, and heavy monitoring/security of establishment.
  6.  All respondents concurred that standard protocols should be in place to guide law enforcement in recognizing the crime of trafficking and identifying victims.
  7. Respondents also discussed the important role of local law enforcement in helping uncover these crimes.



National Institute of Justice:




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