Urban Wire The Super Bowl and human trafficking: What we know, and what we don't
Colleen Owens
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As you prepare for this weekend’s  Super Bowl XLVIII by setting out snacks and drinks, law enforcement in host city East Rutherford, New Jersey are “redoubl[ing] efforts to fight what they worry could be one of the [event’s] biggest menaces...sex trafficking.”

Our most reliable estimate suggests that globally 4.5 million men, women and children are sex trafficking victims.

It’s important to distinguish sex trafficking from prostitution and sex work generally. If the sex act is induced through the use of force, fraud or coercion, it is sex trafficking. A minor induced to perform a sex act in exchange for something of value (money, food, shelter, clothing) is automatically considered a sex trafficking victim. Since minors cannot legally grant consent, proving force, fraud or coercion is not necessary.

That means sex trafficking does not require geographic movement, and it manifests in multiple forms across the United States– from immigrant women forced into sexual service paying off smuggling debts to runaway U.S. citizen minors advertised online by pimps/traffickers. The words we use to describe the crime of human trafficking are new, but the acts constituting the crime are not.

Sex trafficking and the Super Bowl

Some dismiss Super Bowl-surge reports as fear mongering, stating that “there's no evidence that a mass influx of sports fans increases the [trafficking] problem or contributes to it in some way." However, this claim is too simplistic. The fact is, we don't know enough to say.

Although it’s been almost 14 years since the federal anti-trafficking law passed, systematic data collection on human trafficking incidents and investigations has only recently begun. And we still lack a nationwide data collection system that would tell us what happens to cases once they are referred for local or state prosecution. Outside of federally-funded service provision organizations, data is not consistently collected on the number of trafficked individuals receiving services.

To be clear, an absence of data does not mean an absence of trafficking. It exists in our communities, and research suggests it is far more prevalent than official statistics would have us believe. Here is what we do know:

Human trafficking is not just sex trafficking.

If New Jersey, or any community, wants to address the full scope of trafficking, resources must also be directed to combat forced labor. Super Bowl fans may be surprised to know that the people cleaning their hotel rooms, serving meals at restaurants, or driving taxis to and from the game could be victims of labor trafficking. This means  violence, threats, and other forms of force, fraud, or coercion are being used to keep them working. Loopholes in the civil and criminal justice system and an overall lack of enforcement mean that these abuses can go unseen and unpunished.

Most local law enforcement do not proactively go after human trafficking. 

It’s encouraging that officials in East Rutherford are actively looking for potential victims, because our research with Northeastern University found that law enforcement’s approach was generally to wait for tips to come in. However, we found that for a host of reasons individuals rarely self-identified as human trafficking victims and reported to police in only 10% of cases. Not proactively policing for trafficking guarantees that cases will be under-identified.

Human trafficking laws are not being enforced.

According to our research, once human trafficking cases are identified and referred to prosecution, very few are prosecuted with existing human trafficking laws. Instead, cases may be dismissed or prosecuted with lesser crimes— like pandering, promoting prostitution, or alien harboring— hiding the prevalence of human trafficking from the public, and sending a message to victims and offenders that these cases are not serious. Communities should create prosecution performance metrics and make the data publicly available, so prosecution practices are evidence-based and law enforcement are held accountable.

Task forces work.  

New Jersey’s Attorney General has reportedly convened a Super Bowl task force, and officials have been working to educate the public on the signs of trafficking. Our data show that task forces and training are effective when it comes to increasing the number of child sex trafficking cases moving through the criminal justice system.  But further research needs to explore the impact of different task force models and training on all forms of human trafficking.

It’s worth exploring  anecdotal accounts we’ve heard from convicted sex traffickers that they both target major events, but also try to avoid cities with increased enforcement. In future years, it’s possible that data will be robust enough to determine whether the alleged surge in trafficking around the Super Bowl is real. But for now, the same political will to investigate sex trafficking at the Super Bowl is needed to investigate all forms of human trafficking year-round across the country, as are the resources to accurately track and measure the problem.

With this level of support and leadership, the numbers of victims and offenders would certainly increase—and that’s a good thing. First responders, local and federal law enforcement, and service providers would have the resources they need to support the identification of victims and hold offenders accountable. Communities would be educated about the signs of trafficking, and could help ensure that laws are enforced and victims are connected with specialized services.

What we do know for sure is that human trafficking is a year-round phenomenon across our country –the political will to proactively look for it is not. Let’s hope New Jersey’s efforts signify a change in how we combat human trafficking, and that New Jersey and other communities will adopt year-round, comprehensive, and grounded-in-evidence strategies.

Image from Flickr user picturesofyou (CC BY 2.0)


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Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Human trafficking