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Bay Area law enforcement adopt victims-based approach to combat human trafficking


Vanek Oki Parra
Sgt. Kyle Oki, Helen Stacy, Captain Antonio Parra and Lt. John Vanek.
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The Program on Human Rights presented the seventh installment of the Sanela Diana Jenkins International Speakers Series on February 28, which focused on anti-trafficking measures in the Bay area. Lt. John Vanek and Sgt. Kyle Oki from the San Jose Police Department Human Trafficking Task Force and Captain Antonio Parra from the San Francisco Police Department Human Trafficking Task Force spoke about their unit’s recent implementation of a victims-based approach in law enforcement, speaking frankly about its importance and the challenges it presents.

Lt. Vanek explained how the San Jose Police Department had transitioned from a criminal approach to prostitution to a multi-disciplinary model to combat modern-day slavery. The San Jose human trafficking task force was created in 2005 but the victim-centered approach is still developing. He spoke about some of the ongoing challenges, namely that all police officers need training on program management and victim assistance, and also deeper expertise on criminal investigations of human trafficking cases.

Sgt. Oki argued that a victim-centered approach is often restricted to identifying and rescuing victims of human trafficking. He noted that while it would be ideal to prosecute offenders, that is often not possible because police officers must ensure that they respect the victims’ agency and also guarantee their safety and confidentiality. He mentioned that sometimes trafficked children are safer in juvenile hall than in shelters, where they could be repeatedly exposed to traffickers. 

Although the San Francisco Special Victims Unit (SVU) is relatively new – it was created in October 2011— it already includes 60 members. “The SVU represents a philosophical transition that shifts from enforcement to investigation,” explained Captain Parra. “The SVU maintains a proactive stance and integrates related disciplines to investigate specialized crimes such as: human trafficking, elder abuse, internet crimes against children, financial crimes, missing persons, domestic violence and sex crimes,” he continued.

The three presenters agreed that cooperation and coordination is key for a successful victim-based approach. There is need for coordination mechanisms established to stimulate deeper reflection and cooperation in dealing with the problem among different counties, states and countries.