LAW: Why Helping Victims Can Be Difficult

During a 2014 Minnesota conference that brought together more than 200 people throughout the state who are attempting to combat trafficking and bring better services to survivors, a group of law enforcement officers gathered to talk about the challenges they face. They were honest about why this is a difficult battle.


Sgt. Grant Snyder

Sgt. Grant Snyder, Minneapolis, moderated the discussion. He’s got a slight similarity to Louis C.K., in appearance and plain-spoken manner. He’s blunt with a good heart, undoubtedly tough when “bashing down doors,” as he likes to put it, yet as the father of a teenage daughter, protective and compassionate when it comes to the victims. An outspoken and prolific voice in law enforcement, one of his objectives is to help his peers treat trafficking victims much differently than they’ve been treated in the past.

  1. Victims aren’t always easy to like

“We don’t always like the victims. They often lie. They know how to manipulate,” he said in the forum. “What I’ve learned is how to treat the vic. We need to plant seeds that build trust. If we treat them with respect, it pays off later. We have to remember that she’s been betrayed by everyone. She’s been traumatized. She needs care long into the future. They aren’t always going to run to you begging to be rescued. Many times they are angry. They are scared and defensive. They don’t know what happens to them away from the trafficker.”

  1. Why victims don’t always cooperate

There are so many reasons victims lie, or quickly go back to their trafficker, or get angry when you try to rescue them, he said. “It’s self-preservation. Our system is slow. She knows she’ll likely be back on the street because she has nowhere else to go. No one else will feed her or give her a place to stay. She doesn’t want to be a rat. She’s afraid of what happens when the trafficker finds out, gets out, or has someone on the outside track her down. He’s taught her how to lie.”

And, “This is the most shameful thing that’s ever happened in her life. They don’t want to admit it happened. She might even be in love with her trafficker — the trauma in her life makes her see him as a boyfriend who will protect her if she does the right thing. She might have been sold by family members. Everyone she’s known has screwed her over.”

  1. It takes time to build trust

Typically an officer who finds a victim might bring her to the station and question her for 10 minutes, getting frustrated that she won’t help them with an investigation by even admitting she’s been sold for sex.

Snyder told the story about talking with one 14-year-old girl for two hours before bringing up the trafficking issue. To help her feel safe, he tried to engage her in conversation about her favorite color, music, food, school. At the end, he said he’d bring her favorite food when he came to see her again. That was when she finally lifted her head away from the wall to slightly engage. It took ten months of slow and steady relationship-building before she finally disclosed that she had been a trafficking victim.

“Sometimes, in the interest of public safety, we have to back off from trying to get quick answers, and have ongoing conversations,” he said. “It’s not the way we typically handle a case. But this is a lot harder than a homicide investigation. Our victim is alive. She’s been traumatized beyond anything we will ever experience. We might have to rescue her 16 times before she trusts us.”

  1. It requires patience

Even when that girl goes back to the trafficker upon release, several times, the response the next time you see her needs to be, “How have you been?,” he said. “We have to adjust our tactics. We have to listen to them, without judgment. We don’t have to agree with them, but we have to listen. We don’t always get the trafficker,” he said, especially when a rescued victim won’t cooperate. “But our objective and obligation is to not re-victimize them.”

  1. It requires creativity

Often that means being creative with an investigation, he said. The victim might not want to turn in the trafficker, but “she hates the buyers.” Bring in a sheet of mug shots with arrested johns. Ask her to talk about who she’s been with, Snyder said, and she’ll quickly turn. Then you’ve got several guys willing to cooperate to keep things quiet at the office or at home, who corroborate the fact that the trafficker was selling her. It takes the pressure off her to testify — she’s no longer the witness.

  1. It requires resources and funding

Girls, boys and women are sold everywhere — downtown, suburbs, rural — and no county is immune. As those in the streets know, if you live somewhere that has runaways, homeless, abusive homes, foster children, mentally challenged youth, poor mothers, kids with low self esteem, then there are traffickers who know how to find them and sell them. And, if you have men in your community, there will be demand.

But rescuing victims requires more than simply finding them on the streets. In fact, because of the Internet, very little buying starts on “the track” anymore.

Most police departments don’t have the manpower to snoop out trafficking, even when they know the hotels and truck stops and strip clubs and massage parlors and nail salons where it might be happening. To build a case and “break down doors,” they need skilled analysts who can monitor phone records.

For example, when a Backpage ad is posted with a phone number of a girl being sold, a trained analyst can pull call details to that number and begin to identify buyers. But… most police departments don’t have trained analysts.

Sometimes tips come from the public, but, as one Minnesota officer put it in the forum, “we might get the intel, but that doesn’t mean we have enough personnel.”

Most police departments don’t have officers dedicated to trafficking. An officer who is also tracking narcotics, burglary, domestic violence and other complaints in a community cannot dedicate the time needed for trafficking — especially if upper management hasn’t made it a priority. In Minneapolis, there are roughly 50 officers trained in narcotics — and only two focused on trafficking.

And while Minnesota response teams are being trained in the victim-centered approach — and in the new “Safe Harbor” legislation that took effect in Minnesota August 1, 2014 — officers acknowledge that it will be messy for awhile. Mistakes will be made. Not every 911 tip will end up with an appropriate response.

  1. Sea change still needed in perception

Minneapolis and St. Paul are two cities leading efforts to empower survivors and focus their attention on stopping traffickers and, eventually, curbing demand. But thus far, “There are few people around the country who do it this way,” said one officer. The infrastructure of law enforcement around trafficking still needs a lot of progress, with commitment and passion that needs to come from the top.

A retired officer at the forum that a majority of officers still need training “to make that flip” and see victims as victims, not criminals. “Culturally, it’s hard to change. We will stumble. More basic training is needed at the front end.”

A police officer from Rochester, Minnesota, noted that in the southern part of the state, such as the nearby cities of Cannon Falls and Owatonna, people don’t have eyes opened that this is happening in their area. Just over the border in Iowa, a representative from there said, officers get only one hour of basic training that deals with trafficking.

In a regional forum, it was noted that many areas were absent from the discussion — such as Stillwater, and across the bridge into Wisconsin. No officers from Duluth were in attendance, which has had a focus on trafficking by advocates because of the large population of sailors at port on Lake Superior, taken by taxi to victims waiting in hotel rooms. (In the past victims used to be brought directly onto the ships.)

Enroute to the North Dakota oil fields, many traffickers stop for a few days in Fargo/Moorhead after posting ads in BackPages — but that doesn’t mean there are officers trained to find them. Along the I-94 corridor between Rogers and St. Cloud, there are many truckers buying girls, but few tips from hotels.

Although many hotel workers are trained thanks to another Minnesota-based initiative, many don’t want the notoriety of having officers making arrests on their grounds. One officer noted, however, that a contact at a particular Hyatt has been trained and phones in many useful tips.