Prostitute or human trafficking victim? Police discernment of human trafficking

Tara A. Reis, Jennifer C. Gibbs, Daniel Howard, Emily R. Strohacker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Purpose: In 2018, the National Human Trafficking hotline received 275 cases of human trafficking in Pennsylvania, a higher than average portion of the 10,949 human trafficking cases received for the USA. Whether human trafficking victims receive services or enter the criminal justice system as prostitution offenders depends on how police identify them, as police officers are usually the first to interact with human trafficking victims. Thus, understanding how police identify human trafficking is important. The purpose of the study is to explore Pennsylvania police perceptions of human trafficking. Design/methodology/approach: Scenarios were presented in a survey to 489 Pennsylvania police officers. Findings: Police training improved officer identification of human trafficking (vs prostitution) involving older victims. Officers with more tenure were less likely to identify older victims of human trafficking than officers with less tenure. However, older officers were better able to successfully identify older (i.e. age 25 years) victims of human trafficking, but officer age had no effect on identifying younger (i.e. age 15 years) victims of human trafficking. The implications are discussed in the study. Originality/value: The study contributes to the literature by testing (1) whether training affects police ability to identify human trafficking victims in a scenario, controlling for other factors and (2) whether victim age affects officer identification of human trafficking victims. More officers correctly identified younger victims of human trafficking when force was explicitly stated, but more officers misidentified younger victims when force was not explicitly stated and older victims when force was explicitly stated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)334-345
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 6 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Public Administration
  • Law


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