Transit Systems Taking Steps to Combat Human Trafficking

  • Author: Edward Graham
  • Date: June 29, 2022
A red train and bus meet at an intersection in San Diego. Glass high rise building and palm trees are in the background.
San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) and other transit systems have been working towards combatting human trafficking in their systems by educating riders and staff, and working with various stakeholders.

Human trafficking is a heinous crime that affects thousands of people all across the United States, but transit providers and services are uniquely positioned to help combat this illegal activity. 

The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, or deception for the purpose of exploitation.” 

Millions of people across the globe are trafficked each year, and many of these victims are targeted by predators as a result of their migration statuses, economic hardships, and ethnicities. In 2020, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline received 10,583 instances of human trafficking—a figure that likely undercounts the full scope of the problem across the country. 

Traffickers often use public transportation services across the U.S. to find and transport victims, necessitating the need for transit employees, staff, and others to be on alert for the warning signs of potential trafficking. One report found that at least 42 percent of trafficking survivors across the country said their traffickers used buses (both local and long-distance) to facilitate their exploitation, while 27 percent reported that trains were used to facilitate their exploitation. 

In an effort to identify instances of suspected trafficking and better assist victims, transit providers across the country are working to provide their employees and riders with the tools, training, and resources needed to combat this illicit practice. 

Anti-trafficking resources for transit providers

From partnering with law enforcement and human trafficking task forces, to working with nonprofit organizations and state and federal officials, transit providers have a variety of resources they can utilize to improve their anti-trafficking efforts. 

On the federal level, transit providers can apply for grants from the Federal Transit Administration to develop and implement their own anti-trafficking programs. And other programs, such as the Department of Transportation’s Transportation Leaders Against Human Trafficking (TLAHT) initiative, work to help transportation and travel providers maximize their collective efforts to better combat trafficking.

Other nonprofit groups are also providing transit providers with a host of free resources to establish their own human trafficking prevention programs. One of the leading organizations working to educate and equip transit employees with the resources needed to combat human trafficking is Busing on the Lookout (BOTL), a program of nonprofit organization Truckers Against Trafficking. BOTL offers transit providers a wide variety of easy to use resources and materials, including training videos, primers, wallet cards, and posters.

Annie Sovcik, BOTL’s director, has worked with more than 245 U.S. transit agencies to train staff and employees about the signs of trafficking and the steps they can take to report suspected instances. 

“Human trafficking is an everywhere problem, and it requires an everywhere solution,” Sovcik said. “Frontline transportation professionals could be coming into contact with victims of human trafficking and with the crime of human trafficking, so it’s important that they know how to recognize it. And, most importantly, they need to know about the resources that are available to support victims and get law enforcement or victim services involved in a situation.”

Sovcik said that transit services not only act as potential hubs for traffickers, but also as one of the first places that victims might go for safety or to escape from a trafficking situation. She said that it’s especially important for transit employees to have the training needed to identify, support, and assist those individuals. 

“An interaction with a caring and knowledgeable person could make all the difference in a victim actually having the chance to break free, or getting lured back into their trafficking situation,” Sovcik said. 

In addition to using BOTL’s resources to train employees to identify the signs of human trafficking, Sovcik said transit providers should work to establish an internal reporting process and work to strengthen their local relationships with law enforcement and victims services providers. Keeping these channels of communication strong is critical, Sovcik said, particularly when it comes to quickly addressing a suspected trafficking situation or connecting a potential victim with immediate support.

“We’re not asking transit employees to be law enforcement or victims services providers or social workers,” Sovcik said. “It’s about getting them to recognize the signs of trafficking, and having them be equipped to respond in a way that allows them to take action.”

Establishing a trafficking prevention and intervention program

Large-scale transit systems that serve urban communities are working to improve their anti-trafficking efforts by training their employees and partnering with local law enforcement and victims services groups.

In California, a state law signed in 2018 requires transit agency employees to undergo training to identify and report suspected incidents of trafficking. Even before the law went into effect, however, providers such as the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) were already working to train their employees. As a large city not far from the U.S.-Mexico border, San Diego is one of the nation’s hotspots for human trafficking, necessitating the need for enhanced vigilance on the part of transit employees. 

Brandan Shannon, MTS’s Director of Human Resources, is responsible for managing the system’s human trafficking prevention and intervention program. While the state law is geared more toward public-facing transit employees, the program provides top-to-bottom training for every MTS employee to identify the signs of trafficking. 

In addition to an initial training course, which lasts around 30 minutes, front-line employees are retraining in the program every two years. The MTS’s buses and trains are also equipped with dash stickers that include the system’s security numbers and the number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Employees are also given wallet cards that summarize some of the red flags to be aware of, as well as reporting procedures.

“There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” Shannon said. “There are many local and national organizations standing by to assist. BOTL has graciously given us permission to use some of their videos in our training sessions, and we also use BOTL’s victim-centered postings in transit centers. And the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force provides additional training and coordinates with our transit security and Passenger Safety Department.”

While it’s often difficult to find out the outcome of a trafficking report to law enforcement because of ongoing investigations, Shannon said MTS works to share information in their internal communications about successful outcomes in order to keep employees aware of the importance of this type of preventive training.

One successful instance that MTS reported happened not long after the rollout of the system’s prevention and intervention program. A transit security officer noticed a man at one of their transit centers acting aggressively toward a young woman. After the same man came back to the transit center and was spotted approaching other young women, MTS reported their concerns and evidence to the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force. The ensuing investigation, conducted and coordinated by state law enforcement agencies, resulted in the arrest of the trafficker and an accomplice at a motel outside of Los Angeles, where they were found to be holding another woman against her will. 

“One of the reasons we thought publicizing that incident was important is that people don’t always hear the outcome when they file a report,” Shannon said. “So this helps show that, for the few moments we’re asking folks to report suspicious activity, they really can help save lives.”

Combating trafficking on rural transit systems

Human trafficking occurs all across the U.S., from large cities to small rural communities. That’s why it’s important for all transit systems—no matter their size, location, or coverage area—to consider implementing training and resources to combat this nationwide issue. 

One of the rural service providers leading the way in these prevention and intervention efforts is Oregon’s Sunset Empire Transportation District (SETD), which covers an area of roughly 840 square miles along Oregon’s northwestern coast. Jeff Hazen, SETD’s executive director, developed the provider’s trafficking prevention program after meeting Sovcik at a conference in 2018 and viewing BOTL’s materials.

“I made it my mission to make sure that everyone in the district—the bus drivers, office staff, transit center staff, managers, and even the Board of Commissioners—received the training and saw the BOTL video,” Hazen said. “When we did the first training as a group, everyone was glued to the screen listening to the stories and learning what to look out for on the system.”

SETD was the first transit agency in Oregon to train 100 percent of its employees and board members on trafficking prevention and intervention, and new employees go through the training as part of their orientation. All SETD employees are re-trained once a year to keep them aware of red flags to spot, as well as the necessary reporting procedures to follow. And SETD has also utilized a public-facing advocacy campaign to help keep riders aware of the warning signs of trafficking as well.

“We put up posters on the buses and in the transit center waiting lobby and on the inside of stalls doors in restrooms, so someone in there could see it if they were being trafficked,” Hazen said.

The program has seen results right from the time it was launched at the end of 2018. Hazen said that within several months of the training, two different drivers identified instances of suspected trafficking and reported them to their supervisors, who then contacted the police and the National Sex Trafficking Hotline. In another instance, a pregnant woman was visibly in distress in the transit center lobby, saying that she had to get home to Minnesota and escape from her so-called boyfriend. The employees got her out of the lobby to a safe location, and then Hazen purchased a ticket for her to get back to her family in Minnesota. 

“It doesn’t have to be an urban area for human trafficking to happen,” Hazen said. “We’re a rural community on the coast, and it happens here as well. So not only has this program gotten us a lot of positive buzz throughout the district, but it’s helped us make sure that these people are safe and can get the help that they need.”

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