The Enforcement Gap and the New York City Police Departments Treatment of LGBT Human Trafficking Survivors

Human Trafficking is a phenomena that occurs in all 50 States within the United States of America, largely occurring in large population or commerce hubs.6 Of these states one of the largest sites of trafficking is New York State, with dense population centers such as New York City which boasts 8.5 million individuals alone.7 This city serves as the perfect grounds for the trafficking of persons, especially of those who fall under the LGBTQ+ community. New York City has historically served as a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the stage for clashes between the community and local law enforcement. These clashes unfortunately continue on today between the New York City Police Department as individuals identifying within the LGBTQ+ community who experienced anti-LGBT violence 48% also experienced police misconduct. On the whole of the LGBTQ+ community surveyed in New York 54% were stopped by police which is compared to the 28% of non-LGBTQ+ individuals.4 These trends create barriers for law enforcement which directly effect the ability of law enforcement to identify and enforce policy around human trafficking. It is these barriers and their effects within New York City’s LGBTQ+ community that we will view with a critical lens today.

Why the LGBTQ+ Community? 

Individuals in the LGBTQ+ community overwhelming experience cases of bias and discrimination from their families and peers due to their sexual and gender identities. These incidents of bias which are hallmarks of the community place individuals who identify under the LGBTQ+ umbrella in a unique position of vulnerability to human trafficking. The periodic and ongoing process of ‘coming out’ forces individuals to expose themselves to violence, isolation, and work place discrimination.

These factors as Corrine Schwars explains compound to place LGBTQ+ individuals, in particular minors at high risk for all forms of human trafficking:

Housing insecurity is a significant issue, as LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented in homeless youth populations[…] “because of their families’ reactions to their sexual orientation and the exploitation they sometimes experience in their communities”, (p. 37) queer homeless youth are often left without the safety nets afforded to many of their equally-vulnerable peers: homeless shelters might not open their doors to gender non-conforming youth, or foster care placements might not be accepting of openly LGBTQ youth in their homes. Without these safety nets, LGBTQ youth must negotiate their survival independently within a limited set of options, often turning to exploitative and dangerous practices.1

We can see these risk factors play out tangibly in New York City, because of a lack of other viable alternatives or safety nets LGBTQ+ youth were more likely to engage in sex work as a means for survival.1 Through this engagement in sex work as a means of survival individuals are more vulnerable to traffickers who prey on the instability of victims to coerce them into trafficking. Looking at this more specifically according to Omar Martinez 58.7% of homeless LGBTQ+ youth interviewed had been exploited through prostitution compared to 33.4% of heterosexual homeless youth.2

It is these risk factors that have brought this topic into the spotlight in more recent years, as researchers have begun to recognize the full breadth of victimhood in the context of human trafficking. There is a need to acknowledge the effects of bias such as homophobia and transphobia for example have on the likelihood that an individual will be trafficked. This then naturally brings into question how do we respond to these emergent interest groups, which brings us to our next question.

What is the Importance of Law Enforcement Officer Perception in Human Trafficking?

It is important to acknowledge the necessity of effective law enforcement around human trafficking in efforts to halt trafficking, and to provide aid to  trafficking victims. At their most basal levels policies around human trafficking in the United States are hinged upon the prosecution of human traffickers, which then relies on the ability of law enforcement to identify trafficking in the first place. If a trafficking victim is not identified by law enforcement then the burden to identify is left to the victims, a majority of whom are subject to physical or emotional threats to discourage their attempts to escape.

Human Trafficking is a crime wherein its enforcement is heavily based on the perceptions that law enforcement has of victims. As Associate Professor of Northeastern University Amy Farrell has found in her study of officers perception of human trafficking:

When police and the community do not understand what human trafficking is, they do not prioritize its identification. Police leaders talked candidly about the difficulties of devoting resources to human trafficking investigations unless members of their community started to complain about the problem. “If people from the community don’t think trafficking is a problem, then the police are not going to make it a priority” 3

Police officers are more likely to identify and pursue cases of human trafficking which more closely align with their own, and their communities’ perceptions of trafficking, effectively creating an enforcement gap. This enforcement gap leaves individuals who do not fall within this often-narrow conception of who a victim of trafficking is open to continued victimization or re-victimization. Individuals often left out of this narrative include people of color, illegal migrant workers, and the LGBTQ+ community to name a few at risk groups.

By falling into one of these groups individuals are also often further exposed to secondary victimization at the hands of law enforcement. If individuals subject to sex trafficking for example are not identified as victims, they are at risk of being identified and prosecuted as criminals engaging in prostitution. This approach to prostitution as well as historical mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community by police officers has far reaching consequences for enforcement of the law more generally, and makes the investigation of human trafficking significantly more difficult.

Christy Mallory of The Williams Institute identifies what she considers the four major impacts on the enforcement of policy because of police misconduct and mistreatment: 4

  1. Trust in local law enforcement officers is lost
  2. Loss of trust in law enforcement discourages co-operation with officers
  3. Victims are less likely to report crimes committed against then
  4. Departments which engage in misconduct are less likely to meet community needs

With the context that police department leaders have historically relied on a the self-identification of human trafficking victims this relationship becomes more important. Investigations of trafficking of LGBTQ+ individuals becomes further complicated when there is an inherent distrust in officers.4 3 These fears are only reinforced by the treatment of victims of human trafficking across the board, who are often arrested for engaging in prostitution multiple times before they are identified as trafficking victims.3 Herein lies the trouble with policing human trafficking in our most vulnerable populations, there is no room for prosecution when victims do not feel they can seek help in the first place. This increases the likelihood that individuals will be re-victimized in the future as they will not seek intervention when in or if they are brought back into situations of trafficking. As Corrine Schwarz explains why this is especially important for youth in the LGBTQ+ community:

For example, youth who are trying to exit sex trafficking may feel it necessary to continue to be trafficked while they are getting the funds and resources to secure housing or a safe place to live. Because of inadequate housing options, they may feel it necessary to gather enough resources to survive before they seek more sustainable assistance. 1

The inherent instability in the lives of a large portion of  LGBTQ+ youth creates an environment in which they feel unable to access resources out of fear of legal recourse for their survival tactics. This is especially harmful when considering that this instability is often ongoing and in flux, wherein individuals may need to re-engage in survival sex work for example due to unpredictable living and financial situations. Due to the fear of police officers and associated resources LGBTQ+ youth are likely to be trafficked multiple times in the aftermath of financial or consistent living place loss.

We can see that the perceptions of both law enforcement and of victims directly impacts our ability to prevent and disrupt avenues of human trafficking. Without a foundation of trust in place between officers and groups most at risk for trafficking a significant decrease in the number of trafficking cases can not occur. It is imperative that we address the systems in place which allow for the mistreatment of at risk communities, which brings us to our final question.


Why the New York Police Department? 

The New York Police Department has made attempts to address concerns around their treatment of the LGBTQ+ community by establishing policies such as LGBT Liaisons and official Non-Discrimination Policies.4 However as recently as November of 2017 than five years after the implementation of training around the LGBTQ+ community only 6 out of 77 precincts had actually received the training.5 Such training was required only after negotiations were conducted between local LGBTQ+ community members, City Council members, and representatives of the NYPD in 2011. 5 This very training was created with the express purpose of improving the interactions individual officers had with members of the LGBTQ+ community, but has only been limited to academy recruits and individuals up for promotions.5

The implementation of this policy in New York City has inhibited the effectiveness of the policy in the community, which has otherwise been successful in educating officers who have actually received the training.5 This is in a city which has had a particularly rocky relationship with its LGBTQ+ community. Looking through the harassment experienced by the LGBTQ+ community we can see that the statistics for  transgender individuals in particular are startling, which we can see in a report by Christy Mallory:

Of transgender respondents, 59% reported that they had been stopped by police. According to the report, “many transgender interviewees reported being profiled as sex workers when they were conducting routine daily tasks in the neighborhood. They commonly reported stops that seem to be without basis but in which the police officers later justified the stop by charging the person with prostitution-related offenses because condoms were found in their possession. These arrests were frequently accompanied by verbal and physical abuse. 4

These statistics become more concerning when one considers that New York state was ranked fifth in the nation in number of trafficking cases identified in 2017. 6 Here we have a City which is already at a high volume of human trafficking which continues to alienate and breed mistrust within one of its most at risk populations.

The steps taken by the New York Police Department have been overall ineffective in addressing the complaints lodged against the department. The Department effectively ignores complaints of violence or bias alleged of their officers, with complaints only being logged if they document use of ‘offensive language’ by an officer. 5 There is a continued lack of accountability for the actions of New York Police Department officers, and by extension how it effects the constituency of New York City. Often the limited training given to officers is given only in response to a significant offense committed by an officer, when the damage has already been done to the relationship that community member has with the NYPD.4

To properly protect and serve LGBTQ+ survivors of human trafficking police departments across the United States must take action and actively mend the relationship between law enforcement and the LGBTQ+ community. For there to be a world where all survivors of human trafficking are treated with dignity we must first acknowledge that a disparity in the treatment of survivors exists. Take this acknowledgement and make tangible impacts in your community. Research your communities training policies around the LGBTQ+ community, write to your local police departments about their policies, and take action.

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