The way we investigate human trafficking cases in McLennan County, Texas, has evolved dramatically over the past decade.
I was designated as a human trafficking investigator for my department in 2014, but I had been investigating these cases since 2008 – I just didn’t know it. Prior to 2014, we weren’t proactive in human trafficking investigations. Rather, an example of our cases would involve having a mother report that she found an older man texting her teenage daughter for sex and other situations of a similar nature.
From there, we started to conduct sting operations aimed at people wanting to meet underage children, similar to what is seen on the show “To Catch a Predator.” We were posing as pimps trafficking children and were sadly successful at finding adults eager to prey on children. Then, as our operations involving sex trafficking continued to evolve, we began targeting the traffickers themselves and placing these individuals in prison.
In addition to improving how we investigate trafficking, we’re also working to advance our prosecution tactics. As we continue to move forward, the next critical step for us in enhancing our investigations is to reduce our reliance on victim testimony. We need to shift our mindset and build cases around other types of evidence.
We often spend too much time trying to leverage cooperation from victims instead of moving forward on a case. In my experience, a very small percentage of victims get to a point where they’re able to talk about their victimization and testify. Some are simply unwilling to identify as a victim out of fear of their trafficker. But just because somebody doesn’t self-identify or believe they’re a victim, it doesn’t mean they’re not a victim.
Evidence Outside of Victim Testimony
Victims of human trafficking can be among the hardest to help. They are victims of sexual assault daily and suffer the same emotional and psychological abuses as domestic violence victims because of the power and control exercised over them by their traffickers.
It's critical that we don’t depend on their testimony for our investigations. We can avoid re-traumatizing them by going through this over and over again and having a defense attorney call them a liar or a prostitute. Why would we do that when we don’t have to?
Instead, we have to build these cases without victims because history has taught us they will not generally build the cases for us. There are plenty of statutes that do not require victim cooperation, whether it be promotion of prostitution offenses, money laundering, or RICO. None of these offenses require a victim.
In McLennan County, our goal is to structure cases so the victim never has to set foot in a courtroom and testify against their trafficker.
For example, a victim’s cell phone includes incredibly valuable information in our investigations. What you will often find is a plethora of information from their text messages, including messages between them and the trafficker. We can absolutely build a case with these messages. Let the phone paint a picture of the business plan, the way the victim is coerced, the forms of assault, and the number of dates.
If there is no phone, we have to be creative in our approach, perhaps building the case as if it were a child sex crime.
In homicide and domestic violence cases, law enforcement can lift the burden of speaking for victims and we become their voice. We become the person who is going to build every stitch of evidence we can find to put the bad guy away, or to prove that nothing sinister happened. We can do that in human trafficking cases as well.
Partner With Community Service Providers
As law enforcement officers, we’re not in a position to show up and have somebody tell us their deepest, darkest secrets the minute they meet us in a motel. There’s no way we can build rapport that quickly.
Instead, we should focus more on connecting victims to a community service provider who can begin to address their immediate needs while we focus on gathering additional evidence and going after the trafficker.
Whenever we do an operation at a hotel, we have a service provider on location with us. When we meet a suspected victim, I make sure they don’t have any weapons and then I introduce them to a service provider. In labor trafficking investigations, it’s even common for us to have an immigration attorney on standby.
We cannot arrest victims and then expect their testimony. In doing so, we create the very environment in which they are forced to be in this situation to begin with. When we charge victims, they are unable to obtain housing, livable wages, and other basic needs that are necessary to escape their trafficker. There is no other crime in any penal code that you are arrested for because of your victimization.
As law enforcement officers, we have to put our money where our mouth is when we meet a victim and demonstrate to them that we’re there to help them. That support goes a long way in having victims provide us more information as an investigation moves forward.
Hopefully this can start the process of a holistic recovery for them through the services a victim advocate can offer.
Making the Most of Limited Resources
A common misconception with human trafficking investigations is the need for extensive manpower and resources to be effective. In my experience, success can be achieved by leveraging what resources are available to investigators.
Examples of these resources include using the right technology and collaborating with community partners to provide support for victims. These partners are critical to success in our investigations.
In my department, the overwhelming majority of our cases are technology and intelligence-based making a cell phone my primary resource to find victims and begin a case. When we started becoming more proactive against human trafficking, I simply started with a phone, a point and shoot camera, and a digital voice recorder. If that is all you have, then you can make it work.
From there, as our cases developed and we needed more support, I’m thankful that my administration was supportive of my efforts and I could pull in various colleagues as needed. On our busiest operations, when we’re out targeting sex buyers, we’ll only have six officers involved at most.
Investigating human trafficking cases can feel like a daunting task at first, but I believe our efforts here in McLennan County are an example of how you can start small and still be successful.
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.