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Calif. DOJ highlights need for law enforcement specialization in human trafficking

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Law enforcement agencies should appoint a person or team to specialize in human trafficking and handle referrals from other units, California's Justice Department says in a new report.

Units that focus on other issues--such as gangs, drugs or white-collar crime--sometimes happen upon human trafficking in the course of their investigations. Officers who specialize in human trafficking may be better equipped to identify and handle victims in complex circumstances.

For example, officers who specialize in human trafficking cases learn to identify the difference between those who are coerced into illegal activity and those who commit crimes voluntarily, the report (.pdf) says.

They also learn to earn the trust of human trafficking victims. Victims may not know the difference between being arrested and being placed into custody for their protection, and they may be alienated in an initial interrogation if investigators treat them as criminals.

They may also be hesitant to serve as witnesses against those who have exploited them. Specially trained officers can better address their concerns and improve the chances of a successful prosecution, the report says.

If officers who don't specialize in human trafficking are to refer cases to officers who do, they also need basic training to identify potential cases, the report notes.

California has nine regional anti-human-trafficking task forces that include law enforcement, prosecutors at all levels of government and nongovernmental organizations. The report says the task forces take a victim-centered approach much like that seen in its aforementioned recommendations to law enforcement agencies.

From July 2010 through June 2012, the task forces identified 1,277 victims and also arrested 1,798 individuals.

Fifty-six percent of victims who received services through the task forces were specifically victims of sex trafficking. However, international data suggests that labor trafficking is more than three times as prevalent as sex trafficking worldwide. It's unclear whether sex trafficking is really more common than labor trafficking in California or if the latter is underreported, the report says.

Of victims whose country of origin the task forces could identify, 72 percent were from the United States. The report says that may be because task forces are more likely to encounter domestic victims, and that more research is needed to determine their actual proportion.

For more:
- download the report, "The State of Human Trafficking in California 2012" (.pdf)

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