Law Enforcement and Human Trafficking: Overcoming Obstacles in the Pursuit of Justice

By AJ Crow

Edited by Mrunmayee Jere

Cover Art by AJ Crow


Human trafficking is defined by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as “a modern form of slavery” (Human 1). Often referred to as society’s “greatest evil,” human trafficking entraps over 12 million people at any given time (Int’l). The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:

1) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under 18; or

2) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, forced labor, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery (Victims).

To put it simply, human trafficking is the illegal buying, selling, or trading of human beings for labor or sex.

Naturally, the commission of the aforementioned illegal acts attracts the attention and resources of law enforcement. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the phrase “law enforcement” is an umbrella term that encompasses all of “the activities of the agencies responsible for maintaining public order and enforcing the law, particularly the activities of prevention, detection, and investigation of crime and the apprehension of criminals” (Bureau). “Law enforcement” officials may include uniformed police officers ranking from officers to chiefs as well as more specialized officers such as investigators or “detectives”.

In the underworld of human trafficking, law enforcement officials are among the four major categories of people with who human trafficking victims come into contact, along with their traffickers, the "johns," and health care providers (Clawson).

When attempting to discover, identify, and rescue victims of human trafficking, law enforcement encounters many “speed bumps”. Isolation and secrecy along with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are all “speed bumps” on the road to rescuing trafficking victims.

Human trafficking thrives on isolation and secrecy, as “statutes used to charge and convict traffickers cannot effectively be implemented to their fullest extent if human trafficking victims are not discovered, identified, or rescued” (Helton). In other words, the isolated nature of this crime seriously hinders law enforcement's ability to identify victims of human trafficking and prosecute their traffickers.

In addition to isolation and secrecy, traffickers often use coercion and force as means to maintain control and authority over their victims. Physical abuse such as being “beaten and brutalized, raped and sexually abused [and] deprived of adequate food, shelter and sleep” are often employed against victims of human trafficking. All of these methods have one central theme: instilling fear into the trafficker’s victim. This environment sends a strong, constant message to victims that resistance is futile, and the only way to survive is through absolute compliance with the trafficker’s demands.

In conclusion, each one of these “speedbumps” contributes to the high level of difficulty law enforcement officials experience in their efforts to identify and locate victims. It is evident from the very nature of human trafficking that law enforcement is presented with the monumental task of both identifying and prosecuting human traffickers. The underworld that is the human trafficking criminal enterprise and the use of extreme coercion and force by traffickers together contribute to the serious limitations that law enforcement face.

The enactment of The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 has greatly aided in law enforcement’s attempts to combat human trafficking. After the enactment of the TVPA, many federal law enforcement agencies began to prioritize human trafficking by creating units specially equipped to deal solely with this issue. For example, the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice created the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit in 2007 (Helton). Prosecutors within this unit work alongside Assistant United States Attorneys and other law enforcement agencies to “help with trafficking investigations, apply human trafficking statutes consistently, and identify multijurisdictional trafficking networks” (Helton). The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has also implemented initiatives to prioritize human trafficking as a criminal enterprise. As part of its initiatives, the FBI is in continuous cooperation with its local, state, and federal counterparts. Additionally, the FBI employs Victim Specialists who work with victims to ensure their needs are met (Helton).

Similarly, law enforcement agencies at both state and local levels have created initiatives to take on human trafficking largely due to the 2013 Reauthorization of TVPA which expanded the 2005 Reauthorization of TVPA block grant programs that bestow grants to local law enforcement agencies for investigations and prosecutions of trafficking (Helton).

In conclusion, human trafficking poses many unique obstacles to law enforcement. The secretive and isolated nature of the human trafficking criminal enterprise, along with victims who suffer unrelenting physical and psychological abuse and fear retribution, has made the discovery, identification, and rescue of victims incredibly difficult, but not without hope. In recent years, advances in legislation, heightened inter-agency cooperation, and increased funding for specialized human trafficking units within law enforcement agencies have all proved integral in the battle to bring an end to this modern-day slavery; these successes are proof that justice delayed does not have to mean justice denied.


Works Cited

“Bureau of Justice Statistics Home Page.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), United States Department of Justice (DOJ), www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tdtp&tid=7.

Clawson, Heather J., et al., “Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature” 14, U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs. (2009).

Helton, Megan. "Human trafficking: how a joint task force between health care providers and law enforcement can assist with identifying victims and prosecuting traffickers." Health Matrix, vol. 26, 2016, p. 433+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A463292244/AONE?u=ohlink104&sid=AONE&xid=9fd29750. Accessed 15 Apr. 2021.

“Human Trafficking: Modern Enslavement of Immigrant Women in the United States.” American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, www.aclu.org/other/human-trafficking-modern-enslavement-immigrant-women-united-states.

Int’l Labor Org., A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour, 93rd Sess., Report I(B) at 10 (2005) [hereinafter ILO Global Alliance].

Tiapula, Suzanna L., and Melissa Millican. "Identifying the victims of human trafficking." Prosecutor, Journal of the National District Attorneys Association, vol. 42, no. 1, 2008, p. 34+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A186516778/AONE?u=ohlink104&sid=AONE&xid=5f0cb6c5. Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.

Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (“TVPA”) of 2000, 22 U.S.C. § 7102(8).


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