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Taking a Proactive Approach

For all victims, taking the time to make them feel safe is an important first step that can help build rapport (see Section 5.3 on Building Rapport with the Victim as your Witness). In general, all human trafficking cases begin in one of two ways, with a reactive or proactive approach.

Reactive cases present themselves to law enforcement through a variety of avenues that require different types of law enforcement responses. Law enforcement may encounter a potential trafficking victim in the course of their law enforcement duties. They may arrest a trafficker on other crimes and encounter victims. They may conduct an enforcement action where they encounter potential victims of human trafficking.

Some sex trafficking cases are initiated when a street officer arrests or interacts with a person engaged in prostitution. Labor trafficking cases may also be reactive if a victim escapes and interacts directly with law enforcement or if a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or Good Samaritan contacts law enforcement. A raid or sting operation to seize evidence to develop a prosecutable case may occur in multi-victim sex and labor trafficking cases, in which it is appropriate to identify and offer services to victims. 

Law enforcement may receive a tip from someone in the community who is concerned about the welfare of another. Anyone in imminent danger requires an immediate response by law enforcement, even if the action may hinder the initial investigation.

Other victims are referred by a victim services, community-, or faith-based organization. In these instances, it is more common that the victim has already left the trafficking situation and is receiving services.

Proactive Investigative Tools

Beyond the proactive methods listed here, there are many more that cannot be shared publically but are available in a variety of law enforcement sensitive trainings.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) funds the training arm of the National Association of Attorneys General for a 2-day human trafficking prosecutor course, and the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute for a 3-day advanced investigator course. DOJ, DHS, and DOL partner on ACTeam trainings for federal human trafficking task forces.

There are also open source tools that have anti-trafficking applications available on Open Source Intelligence Web site.

Proactive cases do not present to law enforcement at all; instead, they result from operations that are pre-planned, over time, through the use of more advanced investigative methods and criminal intelligence. All cases should involve close coordination with victim service providers in anticipation of encountering potential victims. Some examples include—

  • Labor trafficking identification and investigations: Unlike sex trafficking, labor trafficking investigations are less clear cut. It is an emerging and dynamic area that takes creativity to address. One strategy to consider is partnering with key stakeholders, such as labor or code compliance inspectors, who may have more access and the ability to identify cases if given proper training.

    Tips About Proactive Case Strategies

    Note that many task forces conduct “John” or decoy operations, which support anti-trafficking efforts by targeting the demand side of the sex trade. Undercover officers post online ads for adult services and arrest the suspects.

    Note that this strategy does not uncover actual victims of trafficking. Decoy operations are often accompanied by publication of perpetrators, which can be more dangerous. It is important for the task force to review priorities and decide what is most effective for the operation.

Every task force needs to work both labor and sex trafficking cases effectively. Task forces that are more advanced are able to conduct a larger number of proactive investigations. Using proactive techniques in reactive cases often leads to the intelligence that later forms the basis of longer term “spin-off” investigations. Proactive case leads also often arise from red-flag trainings, street outreach, task force relationships, and partnerships. It all works in concert—bringing public awareness of human trafficking and doing direct outreach to stakeholders, such as utility workers, hotel employees, emergency room staff, school personnel, and others, can help build cases for law enforcement.

A human trafficking investigation entails three phases: pre-operational, operational, and post-operational.

  • The pre-operational phase involves the foundational portions of the investigation that pose little to no risk of discovery by the targets.
  • The operational phase begins once the investigators actually engage the targets with covert actions or tools, and continues through the arrest and takedown of the human trafficking operation itself.
  • The post-operational phase includes all post-arrest aspects of the case.

Even though the three phases are sequential in nature, no case develops exactly as planned, and different aspects or targets within a single proactive case can fall within multiple phases at the same time. Therefore, using the “three-phase” proactive terminology allows investigators and prosecutors to explain the status of pending cases to their chains of command and provide more accurate estimates of costs and timing, which helps to justify the allocation of resources during the investigation.


For additional information and tools, visit the Resource page for Section 5.2 Taking a Proactive Approach.