Eradicating Modern Slavery: Saving Victims Among Us

Guest Blogger: Deputy Chief Carmen Best, Seattle, Washington, Police Department

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, but sadly, even in the 21st Century we are still experiencing slavery and human trafficking in many of our communities. What is human trafficking and why is it so important for law enforcement to take the lead in prevention, intervention, and enforcement of this oppressive and dehumanizing crime?

While most associate human trafficking with the sex industry, there are other forms of trafficking that exploit undocumented workers. In all cases, we find slavery, or something akin to slavery, occurring in public areas and in many unsuspected residences and businesses. This activity is not unique to inner cities. It is often uncovered in affluent, suburban neighborhoods as well.

I have worked for the Seattle Police Department for more than 25 years. Early in my career, I often encountered prostitutes in Seattle’s Central District where I was assigned. I would see these young women standing in the bus shelter or walking to and fro, on the same block for hours. I arrested many of them for violating Stay Out of Areas of Prostituting (SOAP) orders. I eventually knew several of them by name. At the time, I had no respect for these women. I thought they were unconscionable criminals who deserved to go to jail.

Over the years, my views changed radically as I learned that each of these women had a story, usually of sad and disturbing circumstances that led them to their miserable and troubled paths. I began to realize that prostitution was not a victimless crime and that women involved are often trafficked and exploited in a way that strips them of their dignity and self-respect.

The Seattle Police Department began to address human trafficking as part of a statewide task force that approached the Washington State Legislature in 2001 to initiate a law following enactment of the Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. The task force, currently funded through the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), follows the Enhanced Collaborative Model (ECM), which is a multi-disciplinary, victim-centered approach to combating human trafficking.

The ECM Task Force, known as the Washington Advisory Committee on Trafficking (WashACT), is co-chaired by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington and the International Rescue Committee. Through the task force, the Seattle Police Department partners with a cross-section of law enforcement agencies, non-government organizations that work directly with victims, and other government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the Department of Labor. The partnering agencies meet monthly to share information about resources available to human trafficking victims, identify challenges and solutions for services to victims, and collaborate on human trafficking investigations and prosecutions.[1]

Washington became the first state in the country to pass its own human trafficking law in 2003. More recently, the City of Seattle passed a wage theft law[i] that allows employees who are exploited to file criminal complaints against employers. Imagine being an undocumented worker laboring arduously, only to discover that your employer will not pay you. Because you are undocumented and fear deportation or worse, you simply walk away. This is unacceptable, illegal, and immoral, yet it is happening regularly in communities large and small throughout our country.

In a recent case, an 18-year-old female from Chuuk, Micronesia was promised a “better life” in the United States by her male cousin and his girlfriend. Once off the plane, her passport was immediately taken from her and withheld. She was brought to the cousin’s residence in a well-to-do part of town and forced to take care of three small children. She cooked, cleaned, and was not allowed to make friends outside of her Micronesian family. She was also forced to work in a chicken factory and not allowed to keep any of the money she earned. She was raped and physically abused. She did not speak English and had nowhere to turn. When she received a paycheck she was taken to a bank or check cashing service, temporarily given her passport, and then forced to hand over all the proceeds.

Eventually, a neighbor suspected victimization and took her to a local shelter. The police department and HSI became involved, conducted an investigation, and eventually filed charges against the cousin and his girlfriend.

Law enforcement and partnering agencies in human trafficking investigations and prosecutions must recognize that those who are trafficked and exploited for the sex trade or other illegal purposes are truly victims, not criminals. It is vital to rescue them, holding their perpetrators accountable. Our empathy is the crux of our humanity and these cases strike at the very core of our humanity.

The IACP is the national law enforcement technical assistance provider for the BJA/OVC-funded ECM human trafficking task forces. For more information on this initiative, visit the IACP Human Trafficking Project webpage.

 

[1] Washington Anti-trafficking Resource Network “Washington Advisory Committee on Trafficking (WashACT),” http://www.warn-trafficking.org/resources/washact/ (accessed January 12, 2017).

[i] http://www.seattle.gov/laborstandards/ordinances/wage-theftv

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