human-trafficking-reuters.jpg.image.975.568Much like yesterday’s discussion on new efforts to confront the nation’s opioid crisis, this morning’s IACP panel — Human Trafficking Task Force Models: Collaborative Partnerships and Proactive Outreach — discussed how law enforcement agencies are now taking a multilayer approach to a significant and troubling trend.

Sex trafficking is a $32 billion dollar a year business in the US, according to Jacqueline Goldstein, victim assistance specialist, Homeland Security Investigations in Philadelphia. For law enforcement and communities looking to break this industry, Goldstein explained, they must first acknowledge a central challenge inherent in this crime: victims are hard to identify and traffickers are always moving victims across state and international lines.

In July 2016, Philadelphia created a city-wide task force to investigate human trafficking, bringing together local and federal law enforcement, attorneys general, and nonprofit organizations, including the Salvation Army. The task force operates to confront a broad definition of human trafficking, which includes investigations of sex and labor trafficking of both juvenile and adult victims from the US and overseas.

As Kathryn Gordon, Philadelphia Police Department detective , explained, communication is a central effort among task force members. First, they operate with an understanding that all trafficked people are treated as victims, not offenders.

“These victims don’t have backup, and they have not had good interactions with law enforcement,” said Gordon. “Victims are in survival mode, every single day.”

It’s with this in mind that the task force also works closely with the community to recognize signs of trafficking and abuse, but also how to speak with victims. As Gordon noted, victims face mental, physical, and emotional abuse, and they need a range of assistance once they are located. This means that the task force is fully capable to assist victims with needs involving their legal status, family reunification, housing and shelter, and even rehab or detoxification.

In fact, when most victims are encountered, as Gordon described, they are hungry and tired. In this state, she added, officers must know not only how, but when to ask questions of victims. She stressed the need to “build relationships in the right way.”

So far, the program has been a success: in the first 10 months of the task force, 121 investigations have been launched and 90 female victims and three male victims — 63 of whom were juveniles — have been found. This effort, Gordon explained, has helped the city and its law enforcement professionals take a fresh look at this growing issue.

“Our job is to protect the people who can’t protect themselves,” she said.