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Gaps in Reporting Human Trafficking Incidents Result in Significant Undercounting

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Police units respond on scene.

State and regional law enforcement records likely reflect less than 10 percent of trafficking victims in the area, according to new research by Amy Farrell, a Northeastern University professor who studies human trafficking.

Project Overview

While there have been significant advances in the identification and investigation of human trafficking, provision of assistance to victims, and the utilization of various legal remedies, there are still substantial challenges in addressing the crime of human trafficking. One major issue in
the field is the lack of accurate data around the number of victims of human trafficking. Data that truly represent the number of victims and their needs is the foundation in which law enforcement, service providers, and others are able to allocate resources in a manner that is appropriate to address the crime and its victims.

Farrell, along with Northeastern doctoral students Matthew Kafafian and Sarah Lockwood, and colleagues from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the University of Houston-Downtown, examined the crime reporting process in three different police jurisdictions across the country to see whether law enforcement officials had been properly trained to identify human trafficking, and how they kept track of the incidents they did identify.

They found that even when an officer identifies a victim of human trafficking and that victim is willing and able to work with the officer to further the case, the police district might not have the necessary tracking system to properly record the crime as human trafficking.

That insight was the product of extensive record reviews and structured interviews with law enforcement and social service providers. Extrapolating their findings from three study sites to a national scale, the research team concluded that “the UCR Program undercounts both human trafficking offenses that exist in local communities and human trafficking offenses that are identified by local law enforcement.”

The crux of the problem is that, in order for us to make accurate estimations of human trafficking from the collected data, law enforcement investigators need to be able to identify the victims. The study found that inadequate victim identification was a problem not only for law enforcement but also for victim service providers. As a result, the data collections available for study are limited and tend to underrepresent the victim populations.

Research Team

Amy Farrell, Northeastern University

Meredith Dank, John Jay College

Matthew Kafafian, Northeastern University

Sarah Lockwood, Northeastern University

Rebecca Pfeffer, University of Houston-Downtown

Andrea Hughes, John Jay College

Kyle Vincent, John Jay College


National Institute of Justice


Northeastern News Article

NIJ Project Overview

NIJ Newsletter Feature

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