Monday, February 8, 2010

Human Trafficking

Part II: Human Trafficking

Interview with Chief Nicholas Sensley

Cold-hearted and money-driven human traffickers operate in the United States as well as abroad. Today, we’ll take a closer look at one case in California in which the victim was rescued and a trafficker arrested. This will conclude the second and last interview on this issue with our guest and expert, Chief Nicholas Sensley of the Truckee (Ca.) Police Department. Chief Sensley-who has worked in the area of human slavery issues for more than ten years-will share current trends in this crime and efforts to combat it here and abroad. (You can find out more about Nick's company, Cross Sector Solutions and his work in the area of human trafficking on his web site.)

Currently, Nick is preparing a guidebook at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs on effectively combating human trafficking through multi-disciplinary task force models. This guidebook will be used by federal, state and local investigative agencies—as well as non-governmental agencies (NGO)—as a blue print for task force operations to ferret out human traffickers.  DOJ requested Nick author this document based upon principles he developed and taught in task force operations in areas like New YorkTexasFloridaCalifornia and Europe.  Nick is currently a Management PhD student at the International School of Management in ParisFrance.

Q: Chief Sensley, can you give us examples of cases here in the United States? How were they discovered and how were the perpetrators caught?

Sensley: Cases of human trafficking in the U.S. present a diverse picture of the problem. One particular area of concern is related to U.S. citizens who are victims of the crime. Yes, U.S. citizens are victimized in this crime! Most Americans tend to associate this crime narrowly to foreign national victims. That is certainly a vulnerable population, but the key is to remember that anyone can be a victim of this crime. Because I will use a sex case, let’s keep all the other forms of trafficking in mind as well.  

So, let’s go back to our old stomping grounds in Santa Rosa, where we had a case involving a 19 year old woman who was forced into prostitution under threat of harm to her grandmother. The victim was taken to the old Llano Motel (which has since been torn down in part related to this case) and forced to allow six men to rape her over a course of less than three hours.  Notice, I called this rape.  This was not a consensual act on her part despite the mindset of the men involved. Eventually, she cleverly managed to convince her trafficker that she was crucially ill.  He took her to Kaiser Hospital Emergency Room where a very astute nurse responded to her senses about the trafficker’s account of the victim’s illness and discreetly notified the Police Department.  The trafficker was eventually arrested that evening.
The victim was so traumatized that she went into nervous convulsions when the suspect was in custody and she was asked if she would visually identify him under controlled circumstances wherein the suspect could not have known she was viewing him.  The suspect in this case received a nineteen-year state prison sentence.  In this line of work, we are always grateful to sharp frontline personnel like the nurse at Kaiser Hospital.

Q: What are some of the challenges to investigating these cases? Can you give us some examples—either domestic or foreign—that might help us understand the hurdles these cases present?

Sensley: Unfortunately, some of the greatest challenges are systemic problems in the law and sometimes in the mind of the investigators.  As you know, time is often a great handicap for an investigator.  Limits on the time you can detain, the strength of evidence for an arrest, the capacities of clever lawyers, and the strength of psychological control of the trafficker over a victim can be of great disadvantage to protecting a person that is reasonably suspected to be a victim of trafficking.  While I am not for measures that will further erode our civil liberties, I am just stating a fact.  Many victims, especially foreign nationals, do not see themselves as victims because their perpetrators have convinced them that they are criminally liable for committing the “illegal” acts they were forced into.  These victims become fearful of authority and are not the best witnesses to their own victimization.  It is a terribly vicious circle.

In one case, an investigating agent lost patience with the circular story the victim was giving.  A story she had been coached time and time again was the only way she could “survive” if she were taken into law enforcement custody.  Eventually, she was deported and I believe a person was ultimately sent back into the world that victimized her and a good case was lost.  These cases take time, patience, and a strategic multi-disciplinary victim-centered response.

Q: How does your company help combat contemporary slavery? Who do you work with in these investigative efforts and are these collaborative efforts successful?

Sensley: What we do is create the teams that are multi-disciplinary; that is, they are a diverse combination of law enforcement and governmental agencies and nongovernmental victim support organizations.  We work to facilitate a relationship of confidence, trust, and interdependency with a victim-centered focus on the battle to combat human trafficking.  In this team or task force collaborative, we work off of a model that focuses the different resources, skills, individual and organizational capacities, responsibilities, and even the different perspectives about the nature of the problem.  The idea is to channel these service providers and problem solvers into a strategic and impactful response to human trafficking.

Q: Okay, given that one of your task forces gets information about a human trafficking case. How does the task force function in order that the case is investigated, the victims cared for, and the suspects prosecuted?

Sensley: Well, as a former task force operator yourself, you know that the key to a successful response is the execution of a solid plan.  Sure, we know that the best laid plan is rarely textbook successful in response to the criminal world, but having one is like good training.  You know how to give a good initial response and you adapt and overcome the obstacles when you’re in the fray.

Next, because the response is multi-disciplinary, you have to have a good protocol in place to ensure that everyone knows what they are expected to do and how to rely on the rest of the team.  As in most aspects of police work, we are generally proactive or reactionary in our response to a crime.  If the team is proactive and responding to a discovered case of trafficking, then time is generally on our side and we have a better chance of a successful operation.

If the situation is reactionary to something in progress that demands an immediate response, then the key is going to be in the strength of the operators as a team.  In all cases, victim-centered means the well-being of the victims is paramount to the capture of the suspects.  If the physical, psychological, safety and security needs of a victim are known to them to be important to the responders, that person will be your best witness in the successful identification, location and prosecution of the perpetrators.

Q: Have you ever known attorneys, representing these traffickers, to be representing more than one of these suspects in other, so-called, unrelated cases? Is this just the nature of their expertise, or are these attorneys working in cahoots with the trafficking organizations?

Sensley: Well, I do not want to seem to be picking on attorneys like we are known to do in law enforcement, but attorneys come in all shades just like those in many other professions.  Traffickers, like other persons involved in criminal behaviors, often have their relationships and “understandings” established with their attorneys.

By the way, in good counter trafficking operations it is crucial to have victim attorneys as a part of the task force circle. Traffickers will often send their attorneys to “represent” the victims.  That translates to silencing them and getting them out of law enforcement custody as quickly as possible.  That means it may be strategic to have a victim “lawyer up” with an attorney the team knows is sincerely working in the victim’s best interests.

So, the short answer is, yes.  Criminal attorneys can be a part of a trafficking operation.

Q: I would imagine there is political corruption at certain levels in order for this to be tolerated. Is this primarily a foreign issue, or have investigators faced domestic political corruption?

Sensley: Yes!  Well, I could leave it at that and let the imaginations of your readers go where they may.  Political corruption seems to be standard play these days, but I dare not pontificate on your platform. One politically attached form of human trafficking has been identified among foreign diplomats.  Diplomats have brought over “staff” or servants that may be commonly a part of their cultural behaviors in their homelands.  Where it becomes criminal is when they “lend” out these persons to countrypersons living in the U.S. and the labor imposed upon these persons is in violation of U.S. labor laws. The conditions under which these persons may have agreed upon their working conditions in their homelands may translate to force, fraud or coercion under U.S. law.

Q: There are a number of faith-based and non-governmental groups fighting to combat human traffickers in this country and abroad. I remember one group, headquartered in Washington D.C. who used current and retired law enforcement officers to go overseas and help in these investigations. How effective are these efforts and who are these groups?

Sensley: There are a variety of groups with a diversity of mission and tactics aimed at combating trafficking depending upon the skills and resources of its founders and members.  One faith-based group in Washington,  D.C. achieved measurable success in covert rescue operations and case-building support for law enforcement and prosecutors overseas.  That group also brought considerable public attention to the problem as well.

Q: Can you share some of their successes?

Sensley: Well, just like in any business or organizational effort, success is a measure of the defined mission and objectives of the organization.  It is difficult for me to subjectively evaluate the groups taking on this issue because I typically do not attach myself to any group or organization unless our missions are well-aligned.  In which case, we share success or failure.  I will say; however, any group that has a victim-centered, professional, ethical, and lawful mission to combat human trafficking will always have my support.

Q:  What do you see on the horizon regarding this issue? Governments stepping up to the plate to investigate these matters?

Sensley: Mark, when I started working on this problem nearly ten years ago the level of ignorance, especially here in the United States, was so pervasive on a problem that has been around for so long it is very sad to contemplate.  Think about the number of victims that you and I may have encountered in our early years in service that we just didn’t have the training, education, definitions or laws to relate to as human trafficking.  Most forms of human trafficking just don’t appear to be criminal at first sight.

I am hopeful that the increase in public education and awareness of this problem will increase expectation and demand that governmental law, policy, and directives bring about greater focus on this problem at all the levels and venues it occurs.  I am very proud of Congressman Dan Lungren’s call for experts this month to sit down together in Sacramento, California for us to begin problem-solving discussions to address this problem in an area that is rife with this problem.  That type of governmental leadership along with commitment at the street level to peel back the lid of this well-masked contemporary slavery is what will make the difference now and in the long-term.

Q: What do you think the future holds in terms of effectively curtailing human trafficking here and abroad?

Sensley: It will have to hold fast to well-formed, proactive, and strategic responses to a problem that will not know abolition without vigilant crusaders from the local communities to the highest level governmental offices.
Cases of human trafficking in the U.S. present a diverse picture of the problem.  One particular area of concern is related to U.S. citizens who are victims of the crime.  Yes, US citizens are victimized in this crime!  Most Americans tend to associate this crime narrowly to foreign national victims.  That is certainly a vulnerable population, but the key is to remember that anyone can be a victim of this crime.

Author Interview: On Monday, February 15th, we will visit with New York Times best selling author Angela Hunt as she tells us about her latest novel, Let Darkness Come and the art of writing. Angela has authored more than one hundred books in her writing career, and she is a sought-after keynote speaker, lecturer, teacher and mentor. In 2006, Angela completed her Masters of Biblical Studies in Theology degree, completed her doctorate in 2008, and was accepted into a ThD. Program in 2009 while continue a very vigorous and prolific writing career. Join us as she talk about her novel, writing, and the publishing industry.

Police Interview: On Monday, Feb. 22 and March 8—Blog focuses on prison gang investigations and collection of criminal intelligence. Mr. Brian Parry—currently a consultant to the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center in Washington, D.C.—is formerly the Assistant Director of California’s Department of Corrections (CDC), serving with that department for thirty years. Mr. Parry brings a wealth of information about prison gangs and the transmigration of gangs across our borders.


  1. Great interview. A devastating subject and one we need to be more aware of, no matter where we live.

  2. Thank you, Lee. You're right,this is an international problem with a monetary income that rivals drugs and illegal arms sales. No country is immune.