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State Department of Transportation Contributions to the Investigation and Interdiction of Human Trafficking


Human trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. Human traffickers in the United States utilize national, state, and local transportation infrastructure and systems to transport men, women, and children for forced labor and/or sex commerce.

Human trafficking is modern-day slavery, with victims suffering physical, economic, and social harms. Its victims often appear complicit, refusing to identify themselves or otherwise assist law enforcement. To society, the negative aspects of human trafficking include public health threats, e.g. epidemics, and the illegal activities funded by human trafficking, such as terrorism and racketeering. Unlike illicit drug trafficking, the “commodity” involved in human trafficking can be used again and again, making for a lucrative trade.

State DoTs have several potential roles. A state DoT’s driver identification programs and other documentation services can generate leads, and oversight of license plates, vehicle registration, routing and permitting provides a view into trends in commercial and individual driver behavior. The regulatory relationship with the transportation sector creates ties that can be leveraged for non-regulatory interaction. In some state DoTs, staff have become “ambassadors” to motor carriers on the human trafficking issue. They supply group training, for example, but sometimes significant results. A few years ago, state DoT staff engaged a Missouri carrier in outreach, and that carrier provided training to its employees. A Florida based employee of the carrier received the training, and while in transit sometime later spotted strange behavior at a Virginia truck stop. He reported the fleeting incident, and as a result authorities freed an Iowa woman from sexual slavery.

Close coordination with law enforcement is extremely important in addressing security in the transportation system. Sample successes in routine collaboration include ITS technologies used to issue “amber alerts” for missing children and the “silver” alert for missing elderly. Technologies such as video surveillance systems, thermal cameras, and remote sensing, may be used to support activities to combating human trafficking.

In recent years, human trafficking investigation and interdiction by the Department of Justice and others has increased, in response to directives from the highest level of the US government. The US Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have collaborated on outreach and engagement with transportation industry leaders, unions, and workers. For example, joined the DHS Blue Campaign against human trafficking and trained 55,000 DoT employees and 20,000 contractors. Through USDOT there is an interactive, anti-human trafficking web-based workplace, available anywhere with training materials and response protocols. USDOT. USDOT also has coordinated with the private sector. As a result, Amtrak committed to training 20,000 employees; and commercial airlines, through the “Blue Lightening” initiative, are utilizing training, materials, and safe reporting methods for personnel.

In January 2014, the TRB held a session on Human Trafficking at its annual meeting. Federal and state organizations discussed critical issues and initiatives, including the State of Iowa DoT’s collaboration with Truckers Against Trafficking, which has been a model for many states. In January 2016, the TRB conducted Workshop 836: Expanding the Scope of Resiliency: Human Trafficking and Hazardous Materials Concerns at its 95th Annual Meeting. This workshop built on the 2014 session, and included audience interactions that brought forward new information and developments, such as a new app enabling real time communication of tips by truckers and others. Also at the 2016 session, Human Trafficking expert Dr. Louise Shelly discussed the scope and reach of trafficking networks across multiple sectors. A presenter from the USDOT examined linkages to freight management. Data strategies for the transportation sector were discussed also, as a mechanism for supporting the investigation and interdiction of human trafficking.

The latter session topic, data strategies, can be a special area of focus in this project, because with training and awareness campaigns available for tailoring to local circumstances, it would be very timely for TRB to provide additional, practical guidance for improving data availability, quality, and usability in support of those efforts. The Truckers Against Trafficking model, as adopted by the Iowa DoT, includes activities such as collecting data on the interdiction stops that lead to human trafficking investigations. Good data supports law enforcement success, both in investigations and interdiction. A relevant and well-understood data strategy can sharpen analysis of key issues - numbers of arrests, prosecutions, successful convictions, number of victims (including method of recruitment and discovery), routes and patterns of trafficking (states and countries of origin and destination) etc - for the purposes of policy making and decision support. It also helps in coordinating with other transportation agencies.

This project supports multiple TRB aims. TRB has identified public health as a strategic, critical and emerging issue, and the continued presence of human trafficking within our public transportation system affects public health directly. Human trafficking also implicates transportation’s role in sustaining social and economic aspects of community sustainability.


The primary objective is to identify the mechanisms that state DoTs are using to assist law enforcement in combatting human trafficking, assess their effectiveness, and develop high level guidance for supporting the investigation and interdiction of human trafficking.


Research shows that there is limited insight and understanding of human trafficking networks, and this lack of information impedes investigation, interdiction, and decision support related to human trafficking by law enforcement agencies. In particular, traffickers operate clandestine networks and victims of trafficking do not self-identify. These characteristics of human trafficking confound the efforts of law enforcement and the partner agencies they may rely on, such as state DoTs and their employees.

Additionally, the maturity in law enforcement efforts in human trafficking is low because most law enforcement entities themselves have not directed staff to collect human trafficking related data. Where relevant information is collected, it is rarely coded properly for easy access and sharing. With respect to data sharing, interoperability issues impedes partnering. Producers and “stewards” of data potentially useful to understanding human trafficking often do not have incentives (nor even the awareness) to actively share the data. That said, technologies and data collection supporting components of the transportation system produce information useful to the investigation and interdiction of human traffickers, as well as the identification of victims.

Contributions from state DoTs are needed to support the enforcement of human trafficking laws; help victims (e.g. rescuing them and connecting them to services); and improved decision support for policy, operations, etc.

There are several actions that state DoT personnel can take to gain awareness and justify the use of resources to supply valuable information to support anti-human trafficking efforts: knowing the signs of human trafficking; collecting actionable information; utilizing the national human trafficking help line; cooperating with requests from internal and external law enforcement for information that can be derived from transportation agency assets or personnel; and strategic investment in and use of technologies.

In all cases, through more strategic efforts to support anti-human trafficking efforts, state DoTs can support data availability, quality, and usability (to ensure legal sufficiency) and through these improvements support successful, investigations, interdiction, and decision-making.

Many transportation professionals are not familiar with the problem of human trafficking; and while some have awareness, their knowledge may be limited to ad hoc experiences. It can be challenging to rally the resources needed to educate employees on the scope of the problem and on the specific steps they can take - through planning, programming, and daily operations - to mitigate it. This project will inform state DoTs interested in developing structured responses to human trafficking appropriate to their state, as well as in supporting their personnel who may be on the front lines of criminal activity.

Related Research:

Relevant literature spans several topic areas and disciplines, including law, transportation operations, and information technology. Additionally, several academic entities (Wellesley, MIT, San Diego State University) and private corporations in the information management sector (Microsoft, Google, others) are active in researching this topic. Transportation sector-specific research can build on their outputs. The sources below illustrate the range of information and tools that might be reviewed in developing a knowledge base and lines of inquiry.

*“The Crime of Human Trafficking” A Law Enforcement Guide to Identification,” International Association of Chiefs of Police, funded by Office of Violence Against Women, US Department of Justice, Grant No. 97-WT-VX-K003. *

This report outlines methods for effective response and investigation of possible human trafficking. As such it provides basic information on the sort of “actionable information” needed to pursue a case, which in turn supports analysis of the type of data that needs to be collected and preserved by actors in the transportation sector (and others) to support investigation and interdiction by law enforcement. It describes the sensitivity of human trafficking contexts and circumstances and its impact on collecting information.

*NCHRP Report 814, Data to Support Transportation Agency Business Needs: A Self-Assessment Guide *

This 2015 TRB report helps transportation agencies conduct a disciplined review of their data and information management processes to determine if they can support new or existing programmatic requirements. Using the report and its related tools, state DoTs can conduct a self-assessment that helps answers the following questions: Do we have the right data to make good decisions and meet reporting requirements? Is our current data good enough? Are we getting full value from the data that we have? Are we making best use of our data collection and management resources? What do we need to improve? This tool can facilitate assessment of the potential demands on a state DoT where partner relationships – e.g. with law enforcement - require that the agency share the data they produce to that external partner.


An important area of transportation sector assistance in human trafficking interdiction can be the identification, collection, preservation, and sharing of actionable information for law enforcement investigations, interdiction, and decision support.

A key task is to examine current practices at state DoTs as well as practices in other transportation modes that can inform a state DoT’s review of the human trafficking issue. Focus groups and structured interviews with information sources and industry experts may be most useful. This task will result in

  • Identification of the role(s) of state DoTs in supporting FBI and other law enforcement activities on combatting human trafficking

  • Understanding of policies and practices that state DoTs have implemented and can implement on this topic, including a gap analysis

Research subjects may include both US and international agencies with relevant experience in human trafficking interdiction.


State DoTs assisting law enforcement in combatting human trafficking

Sponsoring Committee:AMR10, Critical Transportation Infrastructure Protection
Research Period:12 - 24 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:by Silvana Croupe, PhD, and Chris Baglin, JD, MPH
Date Posted:10/10/2016
Date Modified:11/19/2016
Index Terms:Human trafficking, Crimes, State departments of transportation, Fraud, Labor force, Law enforcement, Law enforcement personnel, Coordination,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Security and Emergencies

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