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Notes From the Field: Collaboration Is Key in Human Trafficking Investigations

Notes From the Field
Date Published
March 27, 2020

Human trafficking is a crime that occurs over time. During the investigation, it is our job to collect all of the pieces of evidence that will be used in a prosecution to portray the picture of a survivor’s experience. This collection and analysis of corroborating evidence can be a daunting task.

For local law enforcement, one of the biggest hurdles in investigating human trafficking is having the availability of officers to handle a crime like this. Human trafficking can absorb a lot of an investigator’s time. The solution is having partners who are trained to do this. It’s important for agencies to realize that help is available and they don’t have to do it alone. There are experts in the field serving in task forces around the country that they can rely on.

At the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, we have two officers dedicated to human trafficking through support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Our task force, the Western District of New York’s Human Trafficking Task Force and Alliance, covers the 17 westernmost counties in northern New York. We’ll go outside of those counties when we need to, but for the most part we concentrate on those areas and work with agencies to build cases and move those cases forward.

We have a number of rural counties in the area, so it’s quite possible that police agencies and the district attorney’s office have never dealt with a trafficking case. In these instances, it becomes very valuable to have trained investigators and prosecutors who will assist throughout the prosecution.

The Value of Partnerships

Collaboration among law enforcement is central to any successful human trafficking investigation, but equally as important are the partnerships formed with victim service providers and other community stakeholders.

Victim service providers often become the best ally to have in the fight against human trafficking because these are victim-based crimes. If you’re not soliciting assistance from professionals who can take care of a victim’s basic needs, you’re less likely to have a successful prosecution. You’re not going to have a victim who has stability in their life, food to eat, health care, and all of those other essentials that we take for granted.

When we encounter victims, we find that the traffickers have been meeting all of those basic needs. When we get them out of that situation, we have to be prepared to be able to provide those basic services. As a law enforcement officer, I would never want to be challenged with providing all of the necessary services or mental health supports to victims. That’s not my area of expertise; service providers are the experts. They are the best people to take care of that for victims.

In some instances, having an immigration attorney on hand can also be beneficial. For law enforcement, it can be difficult for us to articulate continued presence and other visa programs that are available. It’s just another partnership that becomes very helpful and makes us more successful down the road.

Being Proactive

Human trafficking is a crime for which law enforcement must be proactive. That means going out and collaborating with individuals or organizations that are likely to encounter vulnerable populations to identify potential human trafficking cases to investigate.

These individuals and organizations are going to be different depending upon where you go in the country. For example, if you look at the labor markets in western New York, one of our biggest markets is agriculture. We have a lot of workers, traditionally from Mexico, who come over on H2A and H2B visas to work on farms for landscaping and in other environments that involve physical labor. In the past, we’ve had several cases involving the exploitation of these visa programs, so we work very closely with the New York State Department of Labor and the federal Department of Labor, which are involved in the administration of the visa programs — specifically, the regulation of farm labor contractors who contract with farm owners to provide them with workers.

Through these partnerships with the labor departments, we analyze a lot of data to identify potential trafficking crimes. By looking at the data, we can sometimes find areas where farm labor contractors are not registered but still perform the same duties.  

We also work with nongovernmental organizations that support farm workers while they’re here temporarily. By connecting with these coalitions or organizations that serve different vulnerable populations, we have created an avenue for potential case leads.

One way that we establish and maintain these relationships with community partners is to work very closely with the media to send out messaging that educates our communities about human trafficking and makes them aware of warning signs to look for. We’re very careful to craft our messaging throughout the year and coordinate with our partners when we do our marketing.

Becoming Experts in the Marketplace

Every year, we sit down and discuss the approach we want to have when it comes to being proactive about labor trafficking.

One of our biggest advancements recently was focusing on a specific market and becoming experts in how that market operates. In one case, when my partner and I were looking to learn more about how a dairy farm is run, we took a guided tour of a dairy farm where they walked us through all of the steps it takes to make their products.

Previously, we found ourselves looking at so many different avenues and so many different labor markets that we weren’t able to really be proactive.

One year it may be dairy farms and the next it may be construction, but taking our time to focus on one industry at a time has enabled us to become better experts in what the business model looks like for these companies. In order to be able to articulate what an exploitive work environment is, we must understand how a legitimate labor market operates.

Narrowing our focus has become one of the most important things for us to do, not only from an investigative perspective but from a prosecutorial perspective as well. When you’re more aware of the owner-employee relationship in a given labor market and have an understanding of the documentation required and the manpower needed to run a type of business, it becomes easier to spot irregularities in the market.

This becomes critical when you move forward with an investigation because you need to be able to explain what the normal course of business looks like and why a certain situation may be against the law.

Human trafficking investigations are complex cases, but by leveraging our partnerships, being proactive in our investigations, and becoming experts in specific marketplaces, law enforcement can better identify traffickers and provide support to victims.

About Notes From the Field

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.


Date Published: March 27, 2020