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UHD Researcher Partners with HPD to Identify Indicators of Human Trafficking

Rebecca Pfeffer
(Photo: Thomas B. Shea)

More than two million people live in Houston. In spite of the number of people who live and work in the city, a segment of its population remains largely invisible.

Many victims of human trafficking occupy Houston yet they are often under the radars of citizens and law enforcement officials. A recent study by Rebecca Pfeffer, University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) assistant professor of criminal justice, offers insights on the indicators (or predictors) of human trafficking. Identifying these signs may assist police officers and possibly community members in recognizing and helping victims, as well as bringing traffickers to justice.

Pfeffer’s study “Hidden in Plain Sight: An Evaluation of Indicators of Human Trafficking in Houston Police Department’s Prostitution Incident Reports” compiled prostitution incident reports from 2014. In compiling data, Pfeffer screened 1,474 prostitution incident reports that involved 1,678 individuals for indicators of human trafficking.

The final study was submitted to HPD and shared with Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office and anti-human trafficking organizations.

“The information in this report may result in law enforcement agencies finding more cases of human trafficking in Houston,” Pfeffer said. “If officers recognize any of the indicators while investigating incidents of prostitution, he or she may be motivated to look deeper and uncover an actual human trafficking situation.”

In her study, Pfeffer outlined 12 indicators/predictors of human trafficking. Additionally, she isolated these indicators within the 2014 incident reports. Of all of the prostitution cases reviewed, 13 percent contained indicators of human trafficking. Of those that did have an indicator of trafficking, the most frequently observed were:

  • The presence of a pimp who knowingly recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, obtained or maintained a person for purposes of a commercial sex act – 70 percent
  • An individual who knowingly benefits financially or by receiving something of value, from participating a commercial sex act – 51 percent
  • Disorienting and depriving a victim of alternatives (isolation, restricted communications, manipulation of debts, monitoring/surveillance) – 47 percent
  • An individual that knew (or recklessly disregarded) that force, fraud or coercion would be used to cause the person to engage in commercial sex acts – 39 percent
  • Victim under the age of 18 – 32 percent

By recognizing these and other indicators detailed in Pfeffer’s report, officers/officials can recognize victims and provide the support and services they need. Too often, prostitution investigations result in arrests of victims, who may be reluctant or fearful to admit their situations, Pfeffer said.

“Often times, the lines between cases of prostitution and human trafficking are blurred,” she said. “Officers are trained to identify incidents of prostitution and make the appropriate arrests, but if there are elements of coercion or forced labor, then it may very well be a human trafficking case. When a victim is arrested, he/she may be separated from their captors. That might seem like a good thing, but these cases are difficult to prosecute. Law enforcement relies on victims’ testimony, and they may be reluctant to cooperate if they’ve been arrested.”

Pfeffer’s report concludes with recommendations for HPD’s Vice Unit, which is tasked with investigating prostitution in the city. These include considering alternatives to arresting victims and implementing follow-up interviews with these individuals. According to Pfeffer, victims are often reluctant to self-identify upon first contact with law enforcement. Questioning later in investigations may uncover instances of trafficking.

Her study also recommends that the city’s Human Trafficking Unit closely observe internet-facilitated hotel and residential in-calls and stings of sexually-oriented businesses. In doing so, officers should remain vigilant in identifying human trafficking indicators and be mindful of victims to ensure their safety, confidence and cooperation.

According to Pfeffer, the study also uncovered some surprising findings regarding the buyers of sexual favors. Perceptions of buyers or “johns” is that they are often law abiding citizens who indulge in such activities, so they are often not targeted by law enforcement. Her research, however, revealed that many buyers have criminal histories.

Pfeffer’s study was funded through an Organized Research and Creative Activities Grant administered through UHD’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. She received research assistance from UHD criminal justice student Christopher Buys, who has presented findings at UHD’s Student Research Conference and co-presented with Pfeffer at a UHD high impact practices event. Another student Gabriel Estrada has started working with Pfeffer in analyzing data from 2015 incident reports.

“It’s important that HPD allowed me to conduct this analysis and offer recommendations,” Pfeffer said. “This report is in no way a critique but rather an analysis that they can work with and perhaps tailor enforcement strategies to achieve specific goals. It’s a great partnership of law enforcement practitioners and academics that hopefully will help people in our city.”