Human Trafficking: The Crucible of Training

Human Trafficking: The Crucible of Training

Human Trafficking: The Crucible of Training

Human trafficking is a national and international issue that places unprecedented demands on law enforcement. While states and local communities have adopted legislation and regulations related to prevention, enforcement, and intervention, enforcing these laws and combating trafficking requires widespread awareness of the issue, the development of specialized investigation units, greater collaboration with prosecution, a focus on training for recruits, and enhanced training for veterans.

Human trafficking is a nuanced and dynamic crime that covers the exploitation of people in human, labor, child, and sex trafficking. Definitions aren’t always consistent or clear; however, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, the first comprehensive federal law to address trafficking in persons, defines it as:

  • Sex trafficking: The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; (and)
  • Labor trafficking: 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 subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

The law addresses the three areas of prevention, protection, and prosecution; many states have adopted this approach to build on the law’s foundation.

Known victims of trafficking are mostly women and children. According to a 2020 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “Female victims continue to be particularly affected by trafficking in persons. In 2018, for every 10 victims detected globally, about five were adult women and two were girls. About one third of the overall detected victims were children, both girls (19 percent) and boys (15 percent), while 20 percent were adult men.”

The Polaris Project reports that in 2020, 10,583 situations of human trafficking were reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline and involved 16,658 individual victims. This number includes sex trafficking (7,648), labor trafficking (1,052), and unspecified types of trafficking cases (1,519). However, these numbers do not represent the complete scope of trafficking, largely because many victims fear reporting or may not realize they are being trafficked. These numbers were obtained by Polaris via the National Human Trafficking Hotline and reflect only reported cases.

The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) studied law enforcement training on human trafficking through a grant awarded by the COPS Office: interviewing with line officers and training leaders, holding regional meetings, and facilitating a survey with 30 academy and POST respondents. The study found that training on human trafficking was uneven and in some places, nonexistent. At one end of the spectrum, there are POSTS and training academies that make human trafficking enforcement training part of the core curriculum. At the other, there are states with no requirements and that don’t offer elective or in-service training of any kind. Human trafficking as an issue was often viewed as a fad by law enforcement professionals, who are under constant pressure to adjust training to respond to crises in ways that satisfy the media and the community.

Like most crime, human trafficking is a community issue that demands the attention of both law enforcement and community partners, such as health and human services, organized labor, education, and child protective services. Combating trafficking requires collaboration and coordination among all these groups and advocacy organizations; the lack of such coordination, revealed by IADLEST’s interviews, is perhaps the greatest challenge to developing a comprehensive law enforcement/community response. The criminogenic nature of trafficking makes it all the more necessary to collaborate with advocacy organizations; however, most advocacy organizations are focused on creating awareness with little appreciation for the complexities of how criminal investigation can lead to successful prosecution.

The IADLEST assessment summarizes the situation in the following observations:

  • Training in the human trafficking space is diverse, inconsistent, and must often fight for priority in the competing demands of law enforcement recruit training.
  • There is a lack of consistent coordination between law enforcement and community-based organizations working to create awareness and to do the necessary interventions to restore an individual to their families and communities.
  • Law enforcement is prepared to include and embrace the expertise of established and respected advocacy groups in curriculum development.
  • A barrier to law enforcement collaboration with advocacy organizations is that most of the advocacy organizations are focused on awareness and do not fully appreciate the challenges of enforcement and prosecution.
  • There is a need for a national curriculum that can be adjusted to meet local needs and demands. This curriculum needs to be comprehensive and include the voices of survivors and advocacy groups.
  • Trafficking enforcement and trafficking prevention activities vary and are often driven by geography. For example, labor trafficking is huge in industrial and agricultural areas; sex trafficking is more of an issue in an urban context; violence against women is universal; and tribal communities continue to see high numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women. Adjusting to these realities can be a challenge for law enforcement training.


National Curriculum

The regions requested a national curriculum that could serve as a template for the development and adoption of state and community-based training. A national curriculum will provide a template for recruit and veteran training and will provide guidelines and standards for the states. As part of this project, IADLEST developed a curriculum template that will be shared with the POSTS and academies. The curriculum will allow for updates and changes in the field of human trafficking.

The model curriculum is posted on the website of the National Law Enforcement Academy Resource Network (NLEARN), an IADLEST academy resource network that links the Law Enforcement Training Academies together with trainers from around the world. There is no-cost to join NLEARN. A request for access form can be found here: NLEARN Application Request. For those who already have an NLEARN account, go directly to the Model Human Trafficking Curriculum

Human Trafficking Training Standards

After reviewing the various approaches to human trafficking training through interviews, a survey, and forums, IADLEST identified 9 standards that should be part of all training in academies and POSTS:

  1. Initial training for criminal justice personnel should be a minimum of 8 hours.
    Commentary: Criminal justice personnel include entry-level law enforcement officers and civilian public safety professionals such as telecommunicators, crime analysts, and victim advocates. Eight hours is needed to cover foundational aspects of a preliminary investigation.
  2. Periodic refresher in-service training for criminal justice professionals should be a minimum of 4 hours.
    Commentary: Refresher training is needed for criminal justice personnel, especially those who were unable to apply lessons learned during the initial eight hours of basic training due to very limited or no exposure to human trafficking crimes.
  3. Training should teach participants to recognize the different types of human trafficking.
    Commentary: Criminal justice professionals must recognize key differences between human trafficking and human smuggling, including acts of force, fraud, and coercion by traffickers.
  4. Training should teach participants to identify common victim characteristics and vulnerabilities targeted by traffickers.
    Commentary: Criminal justice personnel must know how predatory traffickers strategically target and recruit victims who are more vulnerable to control and less likely to seek help from advocates or law enforcement. This includes the homeless, mentally ill, and children from unstable homes.
  5. Training should include best practices for conducting a preliminary human trafficking investigation.
    Commentary: Criminal justice personnel must know how to respond to the scene and make it safe; provide emergency emotional and physical care for survivors; protect the crime scene; identify and collect physical evidence; and thoroughly report the investigation according to local, state, and federal guidelines.
  6. Training should include best practices for gathering testimonial evidence from human trafficking survivors.
    Commentary: When interviewing survivors, criminal justice personnel must be sensitive to survivor cultural differences and use victim-centered approaches and trauma-informed techniques.
  7. Training should include methods and strategies to identify human trafficking patterns.
    Commentary: Criminal justice personnel should be able to gather, analyze, and interpret data from local and regional systems to identify patterns of human trafficking.
  8. Training should include methods and strategies to identify and collaborate with human trafficking advocacy organizations and community resources that protect all survivors.
    Commentary: Successful response to human trafficking crimes requires community collaboration. Officers should build partnerships with a variety of victim service providers including medical and mental health providers and organizations serving ethnic LGBTQ, and faith communities.
  9. Training should include methods and strategies for collaborating with attorneys to ensure successful prosecutions.
    Commentary: Criminal justice personnel should work directly with prosecutors at the state and local levels. This includes helping all survivors who want to testify in court without retraumatizing them.


As communities demand more and more from law enforcement, we cannot afford to ignore the need for specialized training in areas often ignored by our criminal justice system. Human trafficking requires focused deterrence, empathy, and the ability to discern the criminogenic nature of trafficking. We are doing better, but we need to do more.