Investigating human trafficking: Teams, task forces, and tips from experts

Here are some options to consider depending on the size of your agency, your agency’s understanding of human trafficking, and your proximity to federal offices

Human trafficking cases can be complex and, as a rule, cannot be handled by one agency alone. Typically, the investigating law enforcement agency and at least one victim services provider will be involved. Routinely, cases can involve both local and federal law enforcement agencies, local (or state) and federal prosecutors, immigration and civil attorneys, and several victim services providers who each provide for the various needs of the victims.

During the past several years much progress has been made in training law enforcement investigators on the prevalence of human trafficking, but we still have a very long way to go before it’s commonplace among officers to understand human trafficking and recognize its signs. 

Nationwide, very few investigators have actually participated in a human trafficking case. As a result, should you discover a case of human trafficking, you may need some advice or assistance. And not only with the investigation. You may find you will need outsiders to help explain human trafficking to your supervisors, command staff or prosecutors.

Call for Help
If you feel you need assistance on a case — from simple advice to additional personnel or other resources — here are some options to consider depending upon the size of your agency, your agency’s understanding of human trafficking, and your proximity to federal offices.

First, ask around your agency and your neighboring agencies whether anyone has experience with human trafficking. Trafficking is a small niche, and there may be another investigator nearby who has an interest in trafficking of which you are unaware.

At the same time, phone the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-3737-888. The hotline is staffed 24/7 by the Polaris Project in Washington, D.C., and they can tell you if there are federally funded task forces or other resources close by. 

Of course, “close by” is relative — the nearest task force may be several states away — but these task forces are comprised of local and federal law enforcement and victim services providers who are experienced with human trafficking. They should be able to offer assistance or point you in the right direction. Also, the hotline can provide contact information for many agencies that are not affiliated with a task force, but which will still be familiar with human trafficking and the proper response protocols.

You can also phone the FBI or ICE-HSI (Immigration and Customs Enforcement — Homeland Security Investigations) office that serves your jurisdiction if your case involves a foreign-national victim or suspect. 

For those of you who are not familiar with HSI, they are the investigative branch of ICE and can assist an undocumented victim of trafficking to legally stay in the United States through a process called Continued Presence. Just like local law enforcement, not all federal investigators are experienced with human trafficking, so explain the circumstances of your case and what you need.

The United States Attorney’s Office has a lot of experience prosecuting trafficking cases, and within any federally funded task force there should be an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) knowledgeable about human trafficking. The AUSA can be helpful in assisting your state or local prosecutor, both in interpreting human trafficking statues and with prosecution strategy. 

Another resource in this area is the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit (HTPU), which is part of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. The HTPU also has its own investigator who is very knowledgeable on human trafficking, from the perspectives of both investigating the crime and working with service providers to deliver a comprehensive response. Contact the HTPU at 202-514-3204.

Become the Expert!
Yes, human trafficking is complex, and investigating cases may mean we need to reach out for assistance. But the resources are out there — you may just have to dig a little to find them. 

One upside to all of this is that through this experience, you will become the subject matter expert in your area! 

And, of course, a victim of slavery will have been freed and, hopefully, the trafficker will be sent to prison.

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