Reimagining Law Enforcement’s Role in the Anti-Trafficking Movement
A conversation about a gap in law enforcement’s training and how to fill it.
Disclaimer: This article is based on current publicly available information in an ongoing federal civil lawsuit. Litigation proceedings may lead to release of additional relevant evidence. Once the case is over, this article may be updated to reflect any new facts that become publicly available.
Inside Fairfax County’s Police Department
In 2010, Jane Doe moved to the United States from Costa Rica, lured by promises of lavish dates and business events with men as employment. Unfortunately, her arrival in the U.S. marked the beginning of five tumultuous years of exploitation for commercial sex work. To prevent Doe from escaping or seeking help, Hazel Marie Sanchez Cerdas confiscated her passport, threatened the safety of her family and kept the money earned from her exploitation.
Detective William Woolf was introduced to Sanchez’s trafficking operation while assigned to a federally funded anti-human trafficking task force at Fairfax County’s police department, called the Enhanced Collaborative Model Human Trafficking Task Force or the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force (NVHTTF). He was the only officer in this task force between 2013 and 2017.
Detective Woolf began to investigate individuals who were exploiting Doe, including Supervisory Officers within Fairfax County Police Department Michael Barbazette and Jason Mardocco, and Lieutenant Vincent Scianna. Woolf was met with stark opposition by his superiors, in the form of intentional resistance, and threats to his family, his job and his reputation. Barbazette, Woolf’s direct supervisor at the time, implemented harsh restrictions on Woolf which hindered Woolf’s investigation and infringed upon trust that had been built between Woolf and known trafficking victims. Barbazette and Mardocco also forewarned Doe’s traffickers of impending investigations and sting operations, so they could suspend advertisements on Backpage.com.
When Woolf approached his next immediate superior, Captain James Baumstark, about Barbazette and Mardocco’s solicitation of sex from Doe and other victims, in exchange for protecting Sanchez’s operation, Baumstark told him to forget it. Former Fairfax County Chief of Police Ed Roessler added to Woolf’s obstacles with a cryptic call insinuating that Woolf needed to be complicit in the cover up.
Attempts to derail Woolf’s investigation, unbeknownst to Woolf at the time, also included intentionally redirecting trafficking victims to the child exploitation unit or the vice unit, who addressed these cases as abuse and prostitution, respectively — not trafficking. There was also a common narrative within FCPD, even among Woolf’s superiors, that trafficked women were not victims and that they were willingly engaging in sex work.
The misconduct of these police officers is the target of a federal lawsuit brought forward by Civil Rights Attorney, Victor Glasberg. The lawsuit alleges that these officers protected the sex trafficking operation and knowingly solicited commercial sex acts by Doe and other victims.
It Happens More than You Think
Jane Doe’s story is not an isolated incident. Although distinct research on corruption of law enforcement and trafficking is limited, information and data collected through investigations and victim accounts shed some light on these occurrences. At Free to Thrive, our clients routinely disclose that law enforcement participated in their exploitation by not arresting them in exchange for sex.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for trafficking survivors to mistrust law enforcement. A harmful minority of officers, like Barbazette and Mardocco, exacerbate this mistrust by abusing their power and leveraging their authority over victims. These incidents highlight the importance of implementing trauma-informed practices in law enforcement settings: trauma-informed training has the potential to equip officers with the skills and knowledge to be a fierce ally and advocate for victims and survivors, and to lessen the narrative that trafficked women are not victims.
There are countless Jane Does in the United States who share similar stories of exploitation, coercion and abuse. Given this reality, law enforcement officers who are committed to honoring their obligation to provide trauma-informed care to victims should never be complicit in victims’ abuse and must actively speak against agents that perpetuate violence.
Training Our Officers: Where Can We Improve?
Police officers regularly interact with vulnerable populations, which calls for a critical evaluation of current police training. In a recent report, it was found that state and local training academies only offered an average of:
- 16 hours of instruction on mental illness
- 6 hours of instruction on victim response
- 5 hours of instruction on human trafficking
If academies that completely excluded these trauma-informed topics from their program were accounted for in this study, these averages would be even lower. To put these averages into perspective, a total of 27 hours were spent on mental illness, victim response, and human trafficking in programs that totalled to approximately 833 hours. In contrast, use of force, self defense and firearms comprised of 154 hours. State and local academies on average reported 18 hours of instruction for de-escalation training, however 21 states still do not require de-escalation training for police.
There is a clear inequity between hours of trauma-informed training versus hours of physically aggressive training in these programs. Although there is value in the few hours of trauma-informed training that was offered, anti-trafficking advocates would be remiss to leave the inequity unaddressed. Law enforcement academies should be mindful to not overlook the immense value that trauma-informed training can add to both the safety of their officers and the people they interact with in the field.
Many of Free to Thrive’s clients share that their first good experience with the criminal legal system is when they reach our attorneys, client liaison, and case managers. This shouldn’t be the case. If law enforcement agencies and advocates work together to supplement existing trauma-informed training, victims and survivors can have more supportive experiences early-on in their path to healing.
Filling the Gap: Turning Education into Advocacy
Jamie Beck, President and Managing Attorney of Free to Thrive, says that “we all have a role to play in the fight against human trafficking.” Law enforcement has a duty to actively engage in their role against exploitation — one way is to take initiative of their department’s trauma-informed education by requesting a training.
From Doe’s story and others like it, we are are reminded that there is no space for complacency in the fight against human trafficking. Anti-trafficking advocates must remain critical of the faults in our criminal legal system at every level. Despite the discomfort that these conversations may bring, it is crucial that advocates and allies do not shy away from them.
An open dialogue is an incredibly powerful tool in the movement against exploitation, and it is vital that law enforcement is included in these conversations. If we all step into our roles as anti-trafficking advocates, whether it’s through education, advocacy or activism, we can make a meaningful impact in the lives of survivors and in the fight against human-trafficking.
To learn more about how you can step into your role as an advocate, please visit https://www.freetothrive.org/.
About the Author: Jasmeen Kharsa is the Marketing & Development Assistant as Free to Thrive. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, with a minor in Political Science, and a certificate in Human Rights from San Diego State University.