Bright Idea: Police Departments Make Worthy Collaborators in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

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Photograph of a police officer standing with two smiling young women.

At a recent community symposium on the commercial sexual exploitation of young people in Dallas, the audience witnessed an unrehearsed demonstration of just how far the city has come in its approach to combating trafficking.

A police detective explained that he and his colleagues no longer detain girls and charge them with prostitution. Today, police treat the girls as victims, taking them to shelters where they can get social services that prepare them for a different life.

It turned out he had once, back before the change in philosophy, arrested one of the young women who shared the panel stage with him.

“Just a few years ago the girls and the Dallas police were at odds,” says Katie Pedigo, executive director of New Friends New Life, a program that helps Dallas women leave the sex industry. “Now we all work together. They literally sit side by side, fighting for this cause.”

Pedigo credits the police department for creating the High Risk Victims Unit about a decade ago. By adding a unit that specializes in helping trafficked young people, she says, the police underlined their seriousness in addressing the issue. They also created a “home base” for the trafficking issue, Pedigo says, helping to coordinate the work of the justice system, youth shelters and advocates for trafficked people.

Here’s how it works: When an officer in the High Risk Victims Unit finds young women who have been trafficked, they take the victims directly to the Letot Center, a Dallas County shelter for youth at risk of getting in trouble with the law. Bonnie Buccigrossi, who helps oversee young women’s entry to the center, and her colleagues admit the youth. The officer alerts Pedigo and her staff, who make their way over and begin providing therapy and other services that will enable the young women to exit “the life” of sexual trafficking.

The High Risk Victims Unit communicates regularly with every Dallas-area agency that works with trafficked people, serving as an information hub while taking the lead on criminal aspects of cases, including prosecuting pimps. The police also help find and communicate with victims’ families, especially if they happen to be out of the area.

With the family and criminal aspects of the case in police hands from the get-go, Buccigrossi says her staff can tend to the immediate needs of the girls who come to their shelter.

“It helps us because we can focus on the girl,” she says, “and it helps the police because they know the girl is in a safe place with people who know this population. And it helps families of the victims, because they know everything is being taken care of.”

Changing the Conversation

Pedigo offered some advice about how to begin collaborating with police on this issue:

Ask  how you can help. Pedigo says police will respond more positively if you say, “We don’t want to hinder or contradict your practices. We want to be a resource for you.” That attitude allows for expertise to flow both ways, and everyone feels their own workload is being lightened, not added to. So make a presentation to the sergeant in charge of youth issues, and explain the effects of trafficking on the community. Then discuss how your agency can help the police address it.

Meet with community leaders. Local and county legislators and councilmembers also interact with the police, and can insist on setting certain priorities. “If it’s an issue for their constituents, local leaders will start paying attention,” Pedigo says.

Stay in touch. Letot Center administrators meet with members of the High Risk Victims Unit and the district attorney’s office about once a month. The conversations keep the youth workers aware of the street-level fight against trafficking and enable the police to follow the ongoing recovery of the girls they help. 

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