Over-Policing Sex Trafficking: How US Law Enforcement Should Reform Operations

Over-Policing Sex Trafficking: How US Law Enforcement Should Reform Operations

Over-Policing Sex Trafficking: How US Law Enforcement Should Reform Operations

The report is one of the first comprehensive reports about U.S. anti-sex trafficking law enforcement operations, jointly coordinated at the federal, state and local levels, and often known as “raids”, “stings” or “sweeps”. They involve law enforcement working undercover or investigating private establishments to identify persons who are sex trafficked (referred to as survivors or victims), and perpetrators. The U.S. government has long used these operations as a primary means for addressing sex trafficking, presenting them as an effective anti-sex trafficking tool through compelling media releases and press conferences. Meanwhile, there is little public data about operations’ outcomes and funding, despite distressing claims that operations harm and retraumatize persons who are sex trafficked, while perpetuating systemic racism as well as discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and undocumented immigrants.

This report analyzes whether operations actually protect persons who are sex trafficked, prosecute traffickers, and prevent trafficking as required under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). Based on a comprehensive review of the literature, interviews with 42 anti-trafficking professionals, and responses to 16 public records requests, we found minimal evidence that operations further these goals. Instead, our research and analysis suggest operations are ill-suited for achieving the aims of the TVPA, and are a product of the United States’ overreliance on law enforcement and a retributive criminal justice approach to address complex societal issues that instead require nuance and understanding of trauma, race, and poverty.

In light of these findings, we urge law enforcement to reconsider their use of operations to combat sex trafficking in the U.S. Effective anti-trafficking efforts are moving away from support for use of operations, focusing instead on community involvement; public health and harm-reduction strategies; and investing in poverty relief, anti-discrimination initiatives, and opportunities for education and employment. We implore law enforcement to join this movement by drastically curtailing the scope of operations to address the limited situations in which they can actually be effective, and to incorporate our concrete recommendations for reforming operations when they are used as follows:

1. Drastically limit the use of operations while supporting community and public health approaches to identify victims and traffickers outside of the criminal justice system;
2. Redirect funding to evidence-based victim identification methods that are more effective and less harmful to victims, and to the extent operations continue, implement strict policies and training that increase the efficacy of victim identification while minimizing trauma to victims;
3. Increase the transparency of operations to support more effective oversight;
4. Strengthen prevention efforts that reduce the vulnerability of potential victims;
5. Increase services available to victims and systematically offer comprehensive services to every suspected victim;
6. Improve communication between nonprofit service providers, prosecutors and other law enforcement agencies, community organizations and sex workers.

Read or download full report here.

The following individuals and organizations endorse this report and its recommendations:


1. Advocating Opportunity

2. Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles

3. BU Law Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program

4. Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST)

5. Cornell Gender Justice Clinic

6. Global Health Justice Partnership of the Yale Law and Public Health Schools

7. Human Trafficking Legal Center

8. National Network for Youth

9. Pars Equality Center

10. Reframe Health and Justice

11. The Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center

12. SWOP Behind Bars: Sex Worker Outreach Project


1. Erin Albright, Founder of New Frameworks

2. Alex Andrews, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of SWOP Behind Bars

3. Chris Ash, Nonprofit Leader & Trainer

4. Dr. Susie Baldwin, MD, MPH, FACPM

5. Rose Cob, Vice President and General Counsel, MDRC

6. Courtney Dunkerton, Anti-Human Trafficking Specialist

7. Prof. Annalisa Enrile, PhD, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

8. Prof. Annie Isabel Fukushima, PhD, Associate Dean, Univ. of Utah

9. Dr. Rosana Garciandia, King’s College London

10. Philip Gnaedig, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

11. Dr. Sofia Gruskin, USC Institute on Inequalities in Global Health

12. Olga Irwin, Spokesperson and Policy Mentor, Positive Women’s Network

13. Prof. Kathleen Kim, Associate Dean of Equity & Inclusion, Loyola Law School

14. Prof. Laura T. Murphy, PhD, Helena Kennedy Centre for Int’l Justice, Sheffield Hallam Univ.

15. Prof. Stephanie Richard, Director, Rights in Systems Enforced, Loyola Law School

16. Prof. Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

17. Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, MPsy

18. Prof. Annie Smith, Director, Human Trafficking Clinic, University of Arkansas School of Law

19. Anita Teekah, Senior Director, Anti-Trafficking Program at Safe Horizon

20. Professor Philippa Webb, King’s College London

21. Dr. Kristen Zaleski, SDP-Keck Human Rights Clinic