Structural Responses to Gendered Social Problems: Police Agency Adaptations to Human Trafficking

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
Structural Responses to
2020, Vol. 23(1) 25–54
! The Author(s) 2019
Gendered Social
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611119873093
Problems: Police
Agency Adaptations to
Human Trafficking
Alicia L. Jurek1
William R. King2
The identification and investigation of human trafficking cases has lagged behind what
prevalence estimates of the scope of the crime have suggested. Previous research has
identified the importance of formalized responses to human trafficking for the
successful identification of these cases, but little is known about the factors predict-
ing the creation of specialized human trafficking units. The current study uses both
primary and secondary data and a theoretical framework informed by structural
contingency and representative bureaucracy to identify predictors of specialized
human trafficking units in large municipal police departments in the United States.
Penalized maximum likelihood estimation revealed only agency size and social
disorganization were significant predictors of these specialized units. Directions
for future research are included.
policing, police organizations, human trafficking, structural contingency theory,
representative bureaucracy
1Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA
2Department of Criminal Justice, Boise State University, ID, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alicia L. Jurek, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Sam Houston State University, Box 2296,
Huntsville, TX 77341-2296, USA.

Police Quarterly 23(1)
Institutions in modern societies exist, in part, to address matters of well-being
and social welfare. The public, policy makers, and media expect that institutions
respond to emerging threats to the commonwealth by creating programs and
units to mitigate social harms and advance justice. This perspective, commonly
called functional rationality (Parsons, 1954), enjoys a long history in sociology.
In this article, we test the utility of functional rationality to predict the response
of one of the oldest institutions in Western society to a newly defined threat,
human trafficking. Specifically, we explore the creation of specialized human
trafficking units by large, municipal police agencies in the United States. We
employ indicators of functional rationality by measuring elements of a popular
organizational theory called structural contingency theory (SCT) and include
indicators of representative bureaucracy and community inequality.
Recent years have seen a growing realization of human trafficking in Western
societies, including the United States. The trade in humans no doubt dates back
thousands of years, and international treaties have attempted to curb related
crimes (such as the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation, slavery,
and forced labor) since at least the late 19th century (Bruch, 2004). It was not until
2000, however, that a comprehensive international definition of human traffick-
ing was created with the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and
Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing
the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Bruch,
2004). That same year, the U.S. Congress enacted the Trafficking Victims
Protection Act (TVPA) as part of the reauthorization of the Violence Against
Women Act (VAWA). The TPVA defined human trafficking as the buying or
selling of humans for the purpose of sex or labor exploitation and set aside funds
to assist in combatting the problem both domestically and internationally
(Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, 2000). Since the initial pas-
sage of the TVPA, all 50 states have passed legislation criminalizing human traf-
ficking (Polaris Project, 2014).
Although human trafficking has been recognized as a crime problem at the
international, national, and state levels, estimates of the prevalence of the prob-
lem are wide ranging and incomplete due to the various methodologies used to
capture these estimates (Farrell et al., 2009; Fedina, 2014; McGaha & Evans,
2009; Wilson & Dalton, 2008). Farrell et al. (2009) recently attempted to pin
down an estimate of the number of human trafficking victims in the United
States. Estimates derived from national surveys placed the number of potential
victims at 5,166, extrapolations from local data yielded approximations of just
over 22,000 victims, and econometric analyses estimated the number to be
60,467 (Farrell et al., 2009).1 The number of actual human trafficking victims
identified (based on the number of federal prosecutions, law enforcement data,
and victim service data), however, was somewhere in the range of 270 to 370

Jurek and King
victims (Farrell et al., 2009). Although quantifying the prevalence of human
trafficking has proven to be problematic, it is clear that there is a vast disparity
in the estimated number of potential victims and the number of victims identi-
fied in the United States (Farrell, 2014; Farrell & Fahy, 2009; Farrell, McDevitt,
& Fahy, 2010; Potocky, 2011).
Human trafficking has been recognized as many things, but two features have
created a unique situation when it comes to identifying victims and responding
to the problem. First, it has been defined as a criminal justice issue. As with most
social problems involving crime and disorder (and even terrorism) in the United
States, combating human trafficking has fallen predominantly on local police
agencies (Clawson, Dutch, & Cummings, 2006). Indeed, the 2000 United
Nations Protocol (and all other international treaties) defined human trafficking
as a law enforcement issue rather than as a human or labor rights issue, and
framing of the problem in the U.S. media switched from a human rights per-
spective to a law and order perspective around the time the TVPA was passed
(Bruch, 2004; Farrell & Fahy, 2009).
Second, human trafficking is politically gendered. Although no gender, race,
or ethnicity is immune from human trafficking victimization, advocacy work
and national and international attention on human trafficking has predominant-
ly centered the exploitation of women and girls (especially White women) for
sexual exploitation (Bruch, 2004; Farrell & Fahy, 2009). In the West, the ste-
reotypical victim of trafficking is envisioned to be a woman or child, and the
public generally views trafficking as a gendered problem (Bruch, 2004;
Doezema, 1999; Farrell & Fahy, 2009; Menaker & Franklin, 2015). Analyses
of push and pull factors for cross-national human trafficking have identified
gender inequality in source countries as an aggravating factor for the trade in
humans (Cho, 2015; but see Jac-Kucharski, 2012); relatedly, greater levels of
gender equality have a positive relationship with antihuman trafficking efforts
(Cho, Dreher, & Neumayer, 2014; DiRienzo, 2018). This has led some scholars,
such as Lobasz (2009) and Jones and Kingshott (2016), to call for a more
explicitly feminist understanding of human trafficking.
Police organizations have responded to social problems with differing levels
of fidelity and enthusiasm since the creation of formal, vocational, police organ-
izations in the United States, starting in 1834. Tasks that addressed social ills,
such as housing migrants and tramps and finding lost children, were jettisoned
in the early 1900s in favor of a militaristic model that focused on crime fighting
(Fogelson, 1977; Harring, 1983; Monkkonen, 1981). Boiler inspections and run-
ning ambulances were dropped (Roe, 1890), and combating domestic violence
was tepidly addressed, but the war on drugs was embraced (Balko, 2013). At an
institutional level, the police often champion mandates that highlight the aggres-
sive, anticrime elements of police (e.g., the war on drugs) and are less enthusi-
astic about softer mandates, such as those proffered by community policing
(Buerger, 1993).

Police Quarterly 23(1)
Predicting the police response to a specific type of social change is difficult,
however. Police administrators have a range of options to deal with problems
and may choose to allow officers to use discretion in dealing with a problem,
provide training, enact a policy or standard operating procedure, create a spe-
cialized unit, or join a multiagency task force. Predicting the response to human
trafficking is particularly difficult. On one hand, trafficking has recently been
framed as a crime problem by federal and state legislation. On the other hand,
the police may respond less stridently to an issue that is viewed as a gendered
social problem (because the greatest harms from trafficking befall women and
children), that invokes moralistic stereotypes about sex work and criminality,
and that often involves images of illegal immigrants (Bruch, 2004; Doezema,
1999; Farrell, McDevitt, & Fahy, 2008; Logan, Walker, & Hunt, 2009; Williams,
2011). Combatting human trafficking is also complicated. The victims frequent-
ly appear to be suspects at first blush because they often present to the police as
sex workers, illegal immigrants, and unlicensed laborers (Bruch, 2004) and are
often unwilling to cooperate with the police due to fear of the authorities or
retaliation from traffickers (Laczko & Gramegna, 2003; Logan et al., 2009).
Far fewer victims of human trafficking have been identified than would be
expected given the high prevalence estimates of the problem in the United States

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT