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By Margaret Henderson

While human trafficking has existed for centuries, communities are paying new attention to the problem. Some high-profile cases — such as the massage parlor investigation in Jupiter, Florida, in March 2019 — have generated extensive media coverage about a specific type of trafficking. There have also been improvements in legislation that address associated crimes, public funding opportunities that focus community attention on improved interventions and response, and — perhaps most importantly — evolving cultural attitudes that are willing to name the illegal behaviors as unacceptable.

Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel another person to perform labor or a sex act for the profit of a third person. Victims can be adults or children, foreign or domestic born. The trafficking can involve purely labor or purely commercial sex or can be a blend of both.

The forms and dynamics of trafficking can vary widely and typically take advantage of local community characteristics. A convention center or military base might generate a market for sex trafficking, for example, whereas seasonal farm work and restaurants might generate a market for labor trafficking (see sidebar, “Environmental Conditions That Enable Trafficking”).

Tracking Trends

The Polaris Project is affiliated with the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Using statistics from callers, the project identified 25 business models of human trafficking. 1 In research conducted in 2018 by the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focus groups of local government workers in the state reviewed the business models to assess which might be visible to staff of any department. 2 (See sidebar, “Business Models of Human Trafficking Most Visible to Local Government Staff.”)

This research illuminated the critical importance of training first responders and inspectors for any purpose—environmental health, code enforcement, fire codes, and so forth. But the focus groups also pointed out the importance of building awareness more broadly among staff who work in libraries, handle registration or licensing functions, manage water/sewer/solid waste/recycling, respond to parking violations or nuisance calls, or work in public waiting areas.



Building Awareness

Terra Greene, city manager of Lexington, North Carolina (pop. 20,000), attended a basic awareness training event hosted by the fire department that was open to all city and county staff. “One key note that was so disturbingly impactful for me to hear in the awareness training … human trafficking is incredibly profitable because the controller or profiteer can sell the same human being over and over again.”

For local governments, the default setting might be to assume that dealing with trafficking falls to law enforcement, social services, or possibly public health clinics. However, research, educational efforts, and real-life scenarios3 together indicate that additional city and county departmental staff have the potential to identify and report the indicators of trafficking, to build community awareness, and to strengthen local systems of response and intervention.

Greene confirms the access city staff have to homes, businesses, and the community at large and goes on to acknowledge the discomfort they might have about reporting indicators of trafficking. “It is critical that public servants take their role one step further when it comes to overall public safety and speak up if they see something. That step can feel like it taps into tremendous inner courage because oftentimes it is innate behavior to mind your own business, especially when on private property.

Donald Duncan, city manager of Conover, North Carolina (pop. 8,000), began his process of strengthening local government response in a similar way, by immediately integrating the content of a “Human Trafficking 101” training event into the content of his public work.

“After sitting through the session, I began to realize how often we see signs of human trafficking, but do not realize it. It was sobering and admittedly depressing. I had been on the periphery of human trafficking and did not understand that until taking the initial training.”

He thought back to the time his wife, an elementary school teacher, suspected one of her students was being abused. Ultimately, it was discovered the child was being prostituted by her own family. While the situation was obviously harmful to the child, no one called it “human trafficking” at the time, but that is what it was.



Taking Action

Conover allows for itinerant merchants to conduct door-to-door sales. After a rash of harassing salesmen, the city council directed Duncan to strengthen the policy governing such sales. “We now require these sales groups to present their identification and pay for a permit. The officers on duty run a quick search through National Crime Information Center (NCIC) to make sure there are no outstanding warrants or prior convictions of fraud or violent crime. After implementing this new procedure, one group came to the police department, and we noticed one person bringing in members of the sales crew, handing them their identification documents4 as they approached. Staff never suspected trafficking until the group was gone.”

Moving forward, Duncan will promote one general and two specific initiatives. First, he decided to offer the basic training to all city staff as part of the safety training regimen and is working with an area service provider to arrange that training.

Second, he is building on a tradition of training staff to be aware of indicators of criminal activity. In the past, the city implemented Fleet Watch, an initiative of the NC Crime Watch program. “To support community policing, the police department-initiated training for sanitation, meter readers, code enforcement, and fire crews to recognize signs of crime and domestic abuse. The idea of broadening awareness to include indicators of human trafficking will not be a stretch,” said Duncan.

Third, Duncan will work with key city staff to consider trafficking through the lens of organized crime, using strategies that evolved from intelligence gathering methods used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The logic underlying such strategies is that gangs represent domestic terrorism and organized crime.” Through peer pressure and forced initiations, they also act as human traffickers. The tactics used to identify foreign terrorists work just as well in North Carolina with NC GangNET5 and other gang intervention models currently in use. With slight modifications these could all be applied to combat human trafficking.”

City Manager David Parrish, of Greensboro, North Carolina (pop. 287,000), learned human trafficking was allegedly taking place in the Gate City during a council meeting. One evening, a resident raised a concern, outlining what types of services were for sale at a local massage parlor. The resident referenced how the city had responsibilities for business licensing that should not enable associated illegal activity.

In response, Parrish immediately deployed city staff from police, engineering and inspections, and code enforcement to investigate the massage parlor to determine if illegal activity was happening on the premises. The investigation included a review of the licensing and on-site activity. The multidepartment team effort uncovered evidence confirming the owners were in violation of the law. Charges related to human trafficking were filed against them. Since then, police routinely follow up with code enforcement to make sure businesses are operating legally.

“We appreciate residents being vigilant and willing to say something when they suspect criminal activity is happening. This is an example where multiple city departments worked together, using existing resources, to address and resolve this incident of human trafficking,” said Parrish.



Key Strategies

Addressing the problem of human trafficking is not simple or easy. Here are some initial strategies to consider.

Build awareness of the indicators and basic dynamics of trafficking across all governmental departments, beyond law enforcement and social services. Suggestion: Invite area service providers to provide basic training, describe local resources for intervention, and begin to build relationships across organizational lines. Encourage self-education through online resources and state or national training opportunities. (See sidebar, “Online Resources for Local Governments.”)

  1. Develop protocols for reporting indicators of potential trafficking. Debrief and adjust as needed, once reports are made. Suggestion: At a staff meeting, discuss and decide on the preferred options for reporting (e.g. , local law enforcement, local rapid response team, or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733), as well as expectations for informing departmental supervisors, the city/county manager, or elected officials.
  2. If your community has a particular challenge with any of the environmental conditions that enable trafficking or any of the business models that traffickers employ, consider taking a focused approach. (See sidebars, “Environmental Conditions That Enable Trafficking” and “Business Models of Human Trafficking Most Visible to Local Government Staff.”) Suggestion: Convene a multi-departmental team to apply existing processes, policies, and procedures to the challenge that relates to trafficking, in order to develop strategies of prevention or intervention.
  3. If your community is working to address any wicked problem (e.g. , homelessness, food scarcity, substance abuse, success in school), know that you are also working to prevent trafficking. Suggestion: Take time out in those existing work groups to consider the issue through the lens of human trafficking. For example, is there a particular way that the local homeless population is being manipulated? (See sidebar, “Vulnerabilities = Opportunities for Traffickers.”)



While the concept of human trafficking is overwhelming to most of us, there are specific steps any community can take to begin to address the issue. Once local government staff members learn about the indicators of trafficking, they tend to respond in the same way as other professional groups: “We’ve been seeing the signs all along, but we didn’t know that it was trafficking.”

The responsibilities of local government staff put them in homes, businesses, and public spaces on a regular basis. They also tend to be people who care about, and are connected to, their communities. Given that trafficking often operates in plain sight, local government staff offer untapped potential for noticing its indicators.

As Terra Greene observes, “Human trafficking is a very real humanitarian issue, which requires acute awareness and courage to actively contribute to the solution.” Remember: Human traffickers only need local governments to do one thing—nothing. Hopefully, these examples and insights from local government managers in North Carolina can inspire other cities and counties to begin their own efforts to stop human trafficking.

Margaret Henderson is a lecturer in public administration; Director, Public Intersection Project, The School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (




1 “The Typology of Modern Slavery: Defining Sex and Labor Trafficking in the United States” at

2 For a discussion, see PMB No. 15, June 2018, “Exploring the Intersections Between Local Government and Human Trafficking: The Local Government Focus Group Project,” available at

3 Media reported that law enforcement used the observations of a health inspector to build the investigation in the Jupiter, Florida, illicit massage parlor case, in early 2019.

4 One indicator of trafficking is that a third party takes and controls access to the identification documents of victims. Traveling sales crews are a business model that traffickers employ.

5 NC GangNET is a database that has a web-based capability of allowing certified users to enter and/or view information on gang suspects and members that have been validated as such using standardized criteria.