Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas conducted a needs assessment to improve authorities’ response to sex trafficking in the region.

Speaking at a webinar hosted by the Health and Human Services Commission’s Human Trafficking Resource Center on February 22, researchers from UT Dallas’ Institute of Urban Policy Research (IUPR) addressed the subject of sex trafficking, debunking some myths, outlining some challenges to combating it, and recommending some ways to improve the authorities’ response.

Their findings were based on research conducted between 2021 and 2023 and were published in a needs assessment report last October.

Denise Paquette Boots, a UT Dallas professor of public policy; Timothy M. Bray, director of IUPR; and Whitney Sanders, an IUPR graduate research assistant, presented their research on the subject, which was based on surveys, interviews, and focus groups with an array of stakeholders. Such stakeholders included not only members of the Dallas Police Department (DPD), nonprofits, and community members but also sex trafficking survivors.

A critical shortfall in handling sex trafficking cases effectively in Dallas, the researchers said, was how the staffing shortage and high turnover rate at DPD have created a significant continuity issue, which Sanders explained even presented challenges for their research.

“The turnover was not just at the line officer level but went from the top down to include captains, lieutenants, sergeants, detectives, and civilian staff,” she said.

Boots also stressed how turnover — especially related to officers being promoted — not only meant “los[ing] invested and informed and educated officers” and having to train new ones, but it also left survivor advocacy groups in the dark.

“[Advocacy group members] suggested that often they don’t know who they should contact to provide services to victims at times. And this sometimes creates gaps in effective policy and the combating of human trafficking, moreover,” she said.

For these reasons, the research team recommended addressing these staffing issues by creating more pathways for employment and addressing budget constraints.

As extensively covered by The Dallas Express, the officer shortage at DPD has had a wide array of effects on the prevalence of crime throughout Dallas. Motor vehicle theft reached sky-high levels — a total of 18,843 reports — in 2023, with just 12 officers available to investigate these cases. Similarly, prostitution offenses climbed 99% between 2022 and 2023, according to data from the City’s crime analytics dashboard.

Although a City report previously called for 4,000 officers to adequately ensure public safety in Dallas, DPD fields only around 3,000. Moreover, City leaders voted for a budget of just $654 million for DPD this year, which is considerably less than the spending levels on police seen in other high-crime jurisdictions, like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.

Another thing the researchers stressed was how difficult it is to quantify the overall human trafficking problem due to its clandestine nature. Moreover, considering that the criminals behind it generate profits amounting to over $150 billion each year, as the U.S. Department of State has estimated, a great deal of effort goes into keeping it hidden.

“Human trafficking can literally happen to anyone in the world. It spans cultures, borders, socioeconomics, neighborhoods, underground networks, and occurs in broad daylight,” Boots said during the presentation.

The sex trafficking reports show that not only is Texas ranked second nationwide, but Dallas comes in second behind Houston when it comes to this illicit activity, according to Boots. Moreover, data suggests that the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex accounts for 35% of Texas’ sexual exploitation cases, even though it constitutes just a quarter of the state’s population.

To better fight human trafficking, Texas lawmakers have passed a series of laws enhancing the criminal penalties for smugglers and stash house operators, as well as for child groomers and online solicitors of sex with minors, as reported by The Dallas Express.

Yet the UT Dallas team outlined some other issues still in need of addressing to reduce the barriers to getting sex trafficking victims the help they need. Several were outlined by Bray, starting with the improper application of bail terms for human trafficking suspects.

“Law enforcement tells us that counties don’t necessarily use bail properly for traffickers because they bond out as their charges are considered nonviolent,” Bray said. “Upon leaving jail, they find their victims. This hinders the criminal justice process because bonded individuals are a low priority for the court system.”

The influence of the trafficker over the victim combined with the isolated, itinerant life they tend to lead means that prosecutors often lose track of them.

“Once the trafficker has been released on bond and reunites with that victim, most of the time, the DA will never be able to contact that victim again in that case,” Bray said.

As previously reported by The Dallas Express, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot caught some flak from the mother of a sex trafficking survivor last month over his office’s failure to successfully prosecute the suspect, even though he had a prior conviction for compelling minors into prostitution. Creuzot’s office did not recommend an indictment, and the case was ultimately no-billed by a Dallas County grand jury.

Another barrier to helping sex trafficking victims is the lack of institutional knowledge on how to handle them. Untrained or undertrained police officers or service providers might retraumatize victims through, for instance, not recognizing the critical difference between a person who is being sex trafficked and a person who is a prostitute.

Moreover, a common misconception is that victims only need to be offered help once — the “one-and-done” approach, as Bray called it — but this is far from the truth. He noted that they often need to be approached several times before accepting help and, even then, may relapse.

Referring to DPD’s recent efforts to train officers in trauma-based, humanizing best practices, Bray noted how all it took oftentimes was for an officer to realize that the survivor in question could be their own daughter, for instance.