Pre-Operational Phase

Smart Tip: Using your task force structure, make sure your protocols clarify roles and responsibilities about when and how law enforcement and victim service provider task force members refer potential victims to each other.

If this is not clearly defined, it can be a source of tension on task forces. See Chapter 3 to learn more about developing a Task Force Protocol that will help avoid potential misunderstandings.

Proactively identifying and investigating trafficking cases requires institutional will and a commitment from law enforcement agency leaders because these cases are time consuming and challenging. Cases can be identified through intelligence stemming from sources such as 911 calls, hotline tips, community partners, analysis of guest worker applications, and complaints from various employment sectors. Courts often interact with trafficking victims, particularly immigration and state courts, including diversion and drug courts. Medical providers, particularly clinics and hospital emergency rooms, often treat trafficking victims. Task forces should consider how they can develop training to extend their reach into these allied agencies and fields as well as how representatives from such agencies and fields can be integrated into task force committees.

The following steps help to clarify the role of human trafficking investigators in the early stages of a case.

  • Undertake a threat assessment in your community for sex and labor trafficking. Work with your partners on the task force to assess the vulnerabilities in your community to identify threats.
Sex Trafficking Threat Assessment
  • Where is commercial sex prevalent or tolerated?
  • Which businesses have contact with prostitution activity?
    • Strip clubs, massage parlors, tattoo parlors
    • Hotels, motels, cantinas
    • Nearby stores, bodegas, clinics
  • Where are concentrations of male customers?
    • Conference centers, casinos, hunting lodges, oil fields, military bases, migrant labor camps
  • Where are concentrations of vulnerable victims?
    • Halfway houses, rehab centers, youth detention facilities, shelters, foster homes, runaways, youth drop-in centers
Labor Trafficking Threat Assessment
  • Which industries have adverse working conditions?
    • Harsh work environments, onerous hours
    • Substandard or controlled living arrangements, isolation
  • Where are there vulnerable workers?
    • Undocumented migrants, visa overstays, guest workers
    • Juveniles, individuals with drug dependencies, individuals with cognitive disabilities
    • Discrepancy in guest worker applications
  • Are there coercive terms or practices?
    • Debts, quotas, company stores
    • Wage kickback schemes
    • Controlled access to earnings and documents


  • Select potential targets for investigation. Build on the threat assessment and identify potential targets for investigation by building an initial case file based on law enforcement-sensitive and open source databases. This process can include a comprehensive review of social media and key Internet sites used by traffickers and commercial sex customers or partnering with labor or code inspectors.
  • Deconflict initial case file with other jurisdictions. The assigned task force investigators should deconflict the initial file with other jurisdictions to identify any other pending matters against the targets. If any exist, connect and coordinate with the officers working those investigations.
  • Begin case planning with investigators and prosecutor. After this initial work-up, the investigators and human trafficking prosecutor should engage in proactive case planning and assess the use of specific investigative tools. Task force investigators also should find investigative partners within other agencies (as needed) and partner with specific human trafficking prosecutors to begin the preliminary grand jury work, including gathering financial information, FinCEN data, extra-territorial evidence, and public records via subpoena or other official process.
  • Establish case-specific goals. Some cases require only short-term investigations, while others require a more significant response. Based on this assessment, the investigative team can establish case-specific goals for the investigation, brainstorm potential operations, tools, and measures, and consider the sequence and resulting consequences of each course of action. This step should include an evaluation of the relevant legal and practical concerns, available resources, officer safety, and other logistical issues.
  • Follow the money. In almost all cases, human traffickers are financially motivated. As soon as possible, begin to build your financial investigation. Track and understand how money is being earned and spent and who is involved.
  • Discuss and identify opportunities and procedures for recovering victims. During the pre-operational phase, law enforcement should discuss opportunities and procedures for recovering victims during the pendency of the covert investigation. In human trafficking cases, law enforcement needs to discuss a plan to address the safety of victims once they get to the operational phase. A common problem arises when law enforcement develop leads against criminal organizations actively engaged in violence or human trafficking-related offenses, and are forced into an untenable choice between: (1) acting quickly (short-term) to stop acts of violence or exploitation (particularly acts directed against or involving children); or (2) working the case fully with a long-term covert investigation. Law enforcement should always choose to prevent harm first (prevention before prosecution), but in the process of acting immediately to intervene, law enforcement can often lose the ability to use effective tools (like RICO) to target the group as a whole or to hold its leadership/key players and outside facilitators accountable. The cost to victims and the public of this untenable choice is high; law enforcement members need to do their best to rescue victims but still keep the case as covert as possible.

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