Pictured: Police Tape; Image was used in a report on trafficking from Seattle

by Kate D’Adamo

Despite a transformative moment which Angela Davis described as holding “possibilities for change we have never before experienced,” the anti-trafficking community has been largely silent on the blossoming conversation on police brutality and its entrenchment in anti-Blackness.(1) While some organizations have put out blanket statements about Black Lives Matter and racism, these few statements have not addressed the field’s entrenchment with law enforcement, or the use of anti-trafficking to re-brand abusive police forces/tactics and expand the police state. This ultimately begs the question — can a field that relies on carceral (2) penalties and approaches even be saved from its pro-police roots?

The history of the anti-trafficking field has revolved around the decision to take social justice problems and apply a criminal justice answer. (3) Neither healing from victimization nor fighting exploitation inherently involves law enforcement. This decision to include, if not center, law enforcement and criminal justice-based interventions was concretized through legislation which incentivized joint approaches between service providers and law enforcement and primarily defined success as convictions. Policy makers and advocates ignored both the history of structural racism in law enforcement’s inception and the impact of American policing and mass incarceration on marginalized communities. While the approach may feel natural after decades of investment and promotion, the decision to push out community stakeholders and de-prioritize broader root-cause work was deliberate, incentivized, and can be undone.

And with communities calling to dismantle the police and repair these legacies of white supremacy, it must be. Disentangling law enforcement from fighting exploitation must be structural and involve the same radical re-thinking of what safety means that communities are having. Confronting the ingrained nature of law enforcement, surveillance and punitive forms of justice is a long process of uncoupling institutions and unlearning assumptions about justice, intervention, victimhood, and control. And every day that we do not name and confront it, we are further entrenching it and creating another layer of complicity to it.

There are multiple ways in which the entrenchment and primacy of law enforcement is incentivized, reinforced, and in some cases outright required through funding and access to additional services. Grants for anti-trafficking funds may require joint applications from both a service provider and a law enforcement body, or require service providers to get a letter of support from law enforcement in their community. Vital supports, such as temporary immigration relief for undocumented victims require law enforcement cooperation for a person to avoid deportation. These constructions solidify the need for service providers to cater to law enforcement and prioritize those relationships over other parts of the community, especially criminalized and marginalized communities where most survivors of trafficking come from.

For service providers trying to be intentional about their interactions with law enforcement, many are trying to balance service to clients against these requirements. Many service providers have received the phone call that a sting on sex work is about to happen and are faced with a choice to either be part of the sting, or run the risk that no services are present and an identified victims’ needs go unmet. Those that choose not to participate because of the known harms such operations cause to the community then face lingering resentment from law enforcement which directly impacts newly identified survivors. Calling for change may mean those officers will retaliate by not signing off on a client’s visa process, risking them deportation.

Beyond these difficult interactions and fraught relationships, the collective understanding of how to fight trafficking is rooted in the criminal legal system, not social justice. When the metrics of success prioritize law enforcement-based approaches, it disincentivizes other more effective and rights-based interventions. If progress is measured in arrests, cases initiated and prosecutions, we lose sight of alternative forms of justice or hesitate to call street-based policing of the sex industry as the state violence that it is.

But even as the country is taking a hard look at policing efforts, human trafficking is being treated as the exception. While there has been a re-thinking about the use of law enforcement and surveillance technology, human trafficking efforts are being exempted. While street-level policing is being recognized a threat to public health, one DA announced her plans to prosecute clients of sex workers under the false label of human trafficking. As mandatory minimums are being decried for drug-related crimes, they are frequently celebrated in anti-trafficking legislation. The field which bills itself as fighting modern-day slavery prioritizes the one system where slavery remains legal — prison. These exemptions undermine serious, long-term work towards liberation. A field which presumes itself to be the exception from broader social justice work should be a screaming red flag that something is deeply wrong.

Can Anti-Trafficking be Rescued?

I don’t know. Mainstream anti-trafficking approaches have relied on concretizing and expanding the relationship between law enforcement and direct service providers while moving the conversation from human rights to criminal-legal interventions. (4) Abolishing, defunding and divesting from American policing systems and reinvesting in community support and alternative structures fundamentally reverses this shift. Taking this work seriously in anti-trafficking would necessitate a complete re-envisioning with outcomes based in prevention and leadership based in community. It may also require a very hard conversation about what this history of complicity in state violence has led to, especially amongst sex working, policed, migrant and indigenous peoples.

Even if we truly believe that we can work towards a world where exploitation is eradicated, not all organizations are ready to do that work or have a desire to shift; many are comfortable calling for expanded policing and incarceration. This is also not to say that it won’t take difficult internal conversations — for some victims of harm, punitive and carceral responses are desired. But those conversations are part of a larger discussion about intentionality of the role and relationship of anti-trafficking in a law enforcement-led landscape, and not being intentional about that relationship is negligent.

For those who wish to honor the calls for defunding, divestment or abolition, there are tangible steps to take. It is not unfamiliar, nor impossible, to see service provider movements engage in self-reflection to the impact of carcerality, especially after taking seriously the concerns of women of color. (5) It is long past due for the anti-trafficking movement to do the same.

Current demands call for investing in a world that holds the same values of anti-exploitation work. Divesting from police means investing in communities. What would case management look like if every time you sought rapid, low barrier, long term housing it was a phone call away even if your only “qualifying” reason at that moment was that they had nowhere else to go? How would your caseload change if housing insecurity was not a vulnerability? What if every school replaced every “safety officer” with a guidance counselor? How would your clients’ life have been different? What if clients never came in with long histories of being arrested for basic acts of survival such as sleeping indoors when homeless (trespassing) or trading sex for rent money (prostitution, loitering for the purposes of prostitution) that had kept them from accessing public housing or education? We aren’t just dismantling, we are building.

Below are just a few of the tangible ways that the anti-trafficking field can begin to disentangle itself from, or at least begin to de-prioritize its reliance on, law enforcement. It is by no means exhaustive and is not a reflection on the priorities of your local Black, Indigenous and people of color communities, such as your local chapter of Black Lives Matter. It is simply some of the places where this relationship between anti-trafficking advocates and law enforcement manifest. I hope that it is, if nothing else, an addition to the conversation.

Support Holding Law Enforcement Accountable. Their Behavior Reflects on You.

  • Learn what the demands are in your local area and stand in solidarity. Understand what abolition means through groups like 8toabolition and TransformHarm.org. Prepare for how these changes would impact your current practices and begin to make those changes so that your services will not be interrupted, used as a reason why the changes are not possible, or be exempted.
  • Decry the re-branding of vice squads to “Anti-trafficking units” or “community outreach units”, which has happened in multiple places including DC, Columbus, Ohio and Dallas, Texas. This is anti-trafficking public relations being used to launder recent histories of police violence, and create new forms of violence under a new name.
  • When you partner with law enforcement, require that they share and update their policies on use of force, sexual contact with victims/witnesses/perpetrators, and other areas of known concern for violence perpetrated by police, including the histories of every officer you work with. Require that policies have teeth by making violations fireable offenses with transparent processes. If police observed policies banning violent practices, Eric Garner may still be alive. (6)
  • For agencies that work on Task Forces or other collaborative projects, stay informed on more than the activities of law enforcement that are directly related to your partnership. Ask questions about how your partners are choosing areas of town for enforcement and engages with people who are housing unstable/experiencing homelessness, people who use drugs, and other marginalized populations.

Be Prepared to Change Your Enforcement Partners.

  • When thinking about enforcement partners, prioritize your Department of Health, Department of Labor, or Human Rights Commission. Advocate for alternative certification, or service provider certification, for victims to access services and benefits. Considerations should include the lowest barriers to participation and the least onerous involvement.
  • Refuse to allow law enforcement to lead outreach or “proactive” anti-trafficking efforts. Partner with community-led organizations and support their outreach efforts. Advocate to the Office of Justice Programs directly and ask local administrative agencies who administer VAWA, VOCA, and anti-trafficking funds to talk to their grant officers about removing the law enforcement requirement for “proactive” anti-trafficking efforts.

Engage in Organizational Self-Reflection.

  • Understand and reflect on the relationship between prison abolition and racial justice, including how mass incarceration uses forced and slave labor. Understand the history of how anti-trafficking efforts have been used to expand policing, affirmed national borders and colonization. Anti-trafficking penalties frequently include mandatory minimums, forced restitution, asset forfeiture, and sex offender registries. Increasing penalties are often treated as quick trade-offs when service providers want additional benefits.
  • Use paid staff time to self-analyze practices around anti-oppression, service provision across racial and socio-cultural lines, and modeling race equity internally. Do a racial audit of your management, front-line staff, clients, Board of Directors and Advisory boards. Hire outside facilitators (who are people of color) to help support your organization in this anti-racism work.
  • Assess your policies for working with law enforcement. What is the process for when law enforcement becomes involved, and what is required of them to do so? What information do you share, and what will you demand a subpoena for? Are you allowed to be an expert witness for a defense attorney? Are victims’ rights/defense attorneys allowed in witness interviews? What risks will you take to put your organization between your clients and cops, even in small ways? What liability risks are you willing to take on to lower the liability of criminalized communities? Does your organization support front-line workers, who are more likely to be people of color and closer to the community, who are going to be taking these risks? Audit your own internal loyalties — is it cops or community?

Re-Define Partnership

  • Treat impacted communities of color, migrants, sex workers, and substance users as stakeholders. These are groups who are most likely to experience trafficking and policing. This is not a coincidence. Define community groups as communities who are most likely to experience trafficking, not simply groups who live outside social service or law enforcement settings. Ask what it would take to make these partnerships accessible and safe for criminalized and marginalized communities.
  • Are there ways in which your internal policies mirror and replicate carceral systems, such as advocating for diversion to your program with months-long open cases instead of not charging at all or lock-down procedures which physically deny clients’ freedom? Abolition of carceral systems is both a process of dismantling structures, as well as an internal reflection of where we have internalized carceral and punitive approaches as the only option. Note: Diversion programs are reform, not abolition. Often, they re-envision and expand carcerality and punitive interventions for victims.
  • Develop relationships with harm reduction partners who often work at the intersections of criminalized survival and health/safety. People who experience trafficking are impacted by many forms of policing and criminalization.

Advocate For Legislative Change

  • Support the repeal of laws which criminalize survival, including sex work and substance use, that are often creating the vulnerability exploited by others. How different would your work be if you weren’t navigating, while trying to expunge, a charge for possession with intent to distribute from a sting operation four years ago where an undercover law enforcement officer pressured someone hurting for money into being their connection?
  • Advocate for changing requirements around law enforcement partnerships. Some of these requirements are administrative, some are Congressionally mandated, but all can be changed with advocacy and persistence.
  • Move the “Blue Campaign”, which is premised on awareness of human trafficking, from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Labor.
  • Remove the cooperation requirement from the T-Visa.
  • Remove law enforcement sign off to qualify for Continued Presence.
  • Do not consider sex offender registries, prostitution registries, mandatory minimums, asset forfeiture, increased penalties, increased maximums, increased surveillance or other increases in prisons and policing as easy trade-offs in bills for services. Concessions are active decisions, bills are moral statements, and the people who will feel those most harshly are probably people with whom you are not in community.

End Notes

  1. In a recent interview, Dr. Melina Abdullah, Pan-African Studies Professor and Black Lives Matter organizer, said, “We’re not being overly dramatic or radical by saying that American policing evolves from the system of slave-catching and it can’t be reformed, it has to be abolished and we have to radically re-imagine something new.” While many organizations are certainly working through their internal conversations on divestment/defunding/police abolition, we can all still acknowledge its beginnings and legacy.
  2. Of, or relating to, the system of policing and prisons.
  3. There is extensive scholarship on how anti-trafficking has also been rooted in myriad forms of racism, xenophobia and hetropatriarchy and had implications for the over policing of racialized and marginalized communities. My thinking around the relationship of race, the carceral system and trafficking is heavily grounded in the brilliant work of Emi Koyama, Shira Hassan, and Andrea Ritchie, Justice Rivera and Brendan Conner, who have taken on this landscape directly, both on paper and in direct action. I also credit and owe much to the work of authors such as Kamala Kempadoo, Noy Thrupkaew, Elizabeth Bernstein, Jo Doezma and Julietta Hua, who have done great work to unpack the role of race in anti-trafficking, which deserves its own multi-book series to unpack. For more information on police abolition as a step towards racial justice, the work of Mariame Kaba, Beth Ritchie, Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore and groups like Critical Resistance and Incite! Women of Color Collective cannot be overstated, among many others.
  4. Anne T. Gallagher (2009) Human Rights and Human Trafficking: Quagmire or Firm Ground? A Response to James Hathaway. Virginia Journal of International Law. Volume 50, Issue 1, Page 789.
  5. Responding to Violence, Restoring Justice is a primer on that conversation with links to many community-based alternatives using a framework of Black feminism.
  6. Abolition pioneer Critical Resistance has a tool on understanding the difference between reformist reform, which strengthens the police state, and what is a step towards abolition.

A collective of individuals dedicated to reframing the sociopolitical paradigms through which we understand race, gender, health, and justice.