By Leischen Stelter
Human trafficking has gained attention in recent years, but it remains a topic that more law enforcement officers need to fully understand. During Together Let’s Stop Traffick, an international summit about global efforts to combat human trafficking, American Military University (AMU) faculty member Michael Pittaro presented the challenges of educating the next generation of officers.
“Most criminal justice students don’t understand human trafficking,” said Pittaro, a full-time criminal justice faculty member at AMU. “My goal is to establish a realistic perception of human trafficking.”
He has found that many students have heard the term, but lack information about the realities of trafficking, the signs of a trafficking situation, or what they as officers may encounter on the street.
[Related article: Tips to Identify Potential Victims]
He emphasizes the importance of students using critical-thinking skills to look beyond the obvious. For example, what may seem like a standard prostitution arrest may actually be indicative of much more.
Pittaro, like many AMU faculty members, is a practitioner as well as a scholar. He spent 16 years in corrections administration and served as group therapist for violent sexual offenders. Early in his career, he became aware of the hardship of many offenders when he got to know a female inmate who was serving time for prostitution and drug-related offenses.
While it was apparent she had drug-abuse issues and mental-health challenges, she shared her story about being sexually abused by her stepfather starting when she was 10 years old. “This experience led her down a destructive path involving drugs and prostitution. I started to think ‘What if her stepfather had never entered the picture? Her life would be completely different,’” he said. “She didn’t choose this lifestyle; this is the path she went down because she didn’t see any alternatives.”
Traffickers prey on vulnerable people by manipulating and coercing them, and it’s important that officers maintain a victim-centered approach to policing. “Hopefully by the time students’ graduate we will have enlightened them and helped them build empathy and compassion for victims because trafficking victims are forced to engage in prostitution and other criminal acts,” he said. “A victim-centered approach allows us to dig deeper, to look beyond the crime of prostitution because it may actually be a trafficking scheme in disguise.”
Pittaro also reiterated that students need to learn that trafficking isn’t something that happens “over there.” It’s something that happens in small towns and communities across the United States. Human trafficking knows no boundaries.
“Many local and state police officers have a perception that human trafficking does not occur here in Pennsylvania where I reside. I live near Interstate 78, which is a known drug corridor. So if it’s ideal for drug trafficking, why not for human trafficking? We tend to dismiss such things, so it’s important to educate our nation’s police officers.”
Together Let’s Stop Traffick, which was attended by more than 120 delegates from government, non-government and private entities, is a good sign of the collaborative efforts happening in the effort to combat human trafficking.
“Law enforcement is an important piece of the puzzle in addressing the problem of human trafficking, but it’s not going to occur without cross-sector collaboration,” he said. “These problems are complex and we need input from everyone. We cannot rely solely on law enforcement. We, as criminal justice professionals, must collaborate with non-government organizations, businesses, and members of the community. Education leads to awareness and awareness creates knowledge and knowledge is powerful in combatting human trafficking.”