Sex and labor trafficking form a multi-billion dollar industry in America, and California is the hub. A leading source of research and policy guidance on the problem, Berkeley Law recently examined anti-trafficking efforts in five Bay Area counties and Los Angeles County’s novel trafficking investigation bureau.
Students helped interview 50 police officers and service providers for the Bay Area report, led by Human Rights Center Faculty Director Eric Stover. Its findings describe insufficient housing and services for victims and roadblocks to prosecuting traffickers, from language barriers and negative attitudes toward victims (many are undocumented immigrants) to mistrust between victims and law enforcement.
“I was surprised by the paucity of resources devoted to addressing this problem,” says Michael Youhana ’18. “We tried to highlight the sometimes divergent perspectives of local service providers, police officers, and prosecutors.”
Kevin Walker ’17, a Los Angeles reserve police officer while in college, helped Stover facilitate the study of his former department’s trafficking bureau.
“We looked at the bureau’s first year and explained what worked well and what could be replicated elsewhere,” Stover says. “Rather than operate in traditional silos, police investigators, social workers, and prosecutors collaborate to help victims leave that life.”
Students developed a questionnaire and then interviewed bureau members, and even rode with officers on sting operations. “Seeing the problem first-hand helps them truly understand the complexity of the issue,” says Stover.
In 2003, the International Labor Organization asked Stover about leading a U.S. trafficking study. Although it was later called off, “we’d already assembled student research teams and wanted to keep going,” he recalls. “We knew California had more trafficking than any state.”
Stover and International Human Rights Law Clinic Co-director Laurel E. Fletcher led the first university-based study of human trafficking in the U.S., and a California study for which students interviewed social workers, activist groups, and forced laborers. Their findings influenced California’s first anti-trafficking law, passed in 2005, and subsequent research has shaped myriad reform efforts.
“Trafficking victims often don’t speak English, live far off the beaten track, and have no viable way to leave their situations,” Stover laments. “That’s why this work is critical.”