SJN Newsletter #20: Would Police Trained to Screen for Trafficking Eliminate the Need for Legalization or Decriminalization of Prostitution/Sex Work?

Dan Nash does not want prostitution legalized. However, he doesn’t want anyone working as a prostitute or sex worker arrested, either. What he wants is for police officers to be trained correctly to understand the unique dynamics involved in the commercial sex industry and the prevalence of sex trafficking within it.

As a retired Missouri State Patrol Officer of 27 years and co-founder of the Human Trafficking Training Center (HTTC) in Springfield, Missouri, Nash understands law enforcement’s challenges when combating commercial sex and sex trafficking. That’s exactly why he does not want prostitution in any way legalized.

“Law enforcement cannot start an investigation without some type of crime first being committed,” he explains. “What we teach is – and this has been very successful in the U.S. and overseas, as well – prostitution allows us to have a door to open an investigation. But you’re not going to arrest these girls for prostitution because we know that more than 90% of them are being trafficked. They are under a third-party control of some sort.”

The latter statements, he says, are supported both by academic research into the links between prostitution and trafficking and by his and other law enforcement experts’ experiences in the field. He ran the Missouri State Patrol’s human trafficking unit’s investigations for 15 years. He teaches police to view prostitution activity as an indicator of potential trafficking. The primary problem for law enforcement, though, has been how do they screen properly for force, fraud or coercion, the legal requirements to determine whether someone is being trafficked.

“Without the door of prostitution enabling us to investigate a crime, we would have to wait for a trafficking victim to come forward and report before we could investigate human trafficking,” Nash says. “We know that some 5 or 6% of women in the US – and when I say ‘women’ I say it in deference to the majority because it can happen to men or boys, too – but we know that only about 6% are ever going to report. So we end up missing roughly 95% of all of these victims because law enforcement has no way in.”

So, training police properly about how to identify and investigate human trafficking is the key, and most police departments are doing a woefully insufficient job. Currently, only about 17% of police in America receive any type of human trafficking training, and only about 8% receive skills-based training, according to Nash.

“Less than 10% of police have proper human trafficking training,” he says. “So, if we let the police go out there and investigate trafficking without giving them the tools, then we can’t wonder why they don’t do a good job.”

That’s precisely the reason he and Alison Philips [See Night Shifts #5.] founded the HTTC in July 2021. Since then, they have trained thousands of police officers throughout the United States from Alaska to Florida and in several foreign countries, including Australia, Canada and Pakistan. They also train medical professionals, advocates and others. One of the most common reactions they have experienced with police during the training, Nash states, is disappointment that they did not have this specialized training sooner.

“Almost every time we have officers going, ‘I totally missed this’ or ‘I totally screwed this up,’” Nash says. “Sometimes they are in tears or upset because they realize they let these people down. The victims were probably being trafficked and they just didn’t know it, or they arrested them when they probably shouldn’t have.”

As for trafficking activities – signs of force, fraud or coercion – Nash and Philips created a screening tool called the Special Victims Methodology that they have trademarked. After reading police reports nationwide, they learned that one of the most likely reasons that only about 6% of victims disclose that they have been trafficked is because the typical police tool to screen for trafficking was simply to ask them, “Are you being trafficked?”

“Well, how many are going to say ‘Yes,’ Nash asks.

Using their Special Victims Methodology drives that 6% disclosure rate up to approximately 50%.

“We teach that all across the world now, and it works,” Nash says. “The people that we trained in 2022 found 57 human trafficking victims after leaving the training.” He adds that he gets calls all the time from officers he’s trained who have then successfully identified victims or traffickers. He frequently posts these stories on LinkedIn, such as this one from earlier this year.

The second call I received was from an officer on a disturbance call between a young male and female. The officer discovered they were in a relationship and had been arguing, but he saw indictors from training that led him to believe this might not be just a domestic violence call. He began using the Special Victims Methodology approach, built rapport and eventually got consent to search her phone. The phone was full of evidence she was involved in commercial sex and that her trafficker was her boyfriend. The boyfriend was arrested, and the officer got the female into services with a victim advocate and was able to help her small child and her dog, which she was very concerned about.

The HTTC training program provides police offices and other students with an understanding of the evolution from a traditional law enforcement approach and mindset to Nash’s proprietary, modern Special Victims Methodology designed specifically for handling prostitution-related crimes. Additionally, the course covers how trauma impacts the brain of a victim and enables students to be victim-centered and trauma-informed so they recognize trauma-response behaviors. It also teaches the basic skills for interactions with victims, including Nash’s and Philips’ new, more successful and innovative way to conduct victim interviews that helps reveal signs of trafficking and third-party control.

Law enforcement officers realize that they need this training, and they’re starting to get onboard. HTTC’s training courses are booked through the rest of the year. Proper training in how to address prostitution and trafficking, Nash vehemently believes, and leads to what he considers the most comprehensive solution:

“If we train police properly, why do we need to legalize prostitution? Why do we need to decriminalize it? What possible motive could there be? What these folks [pro decrim advocates] will say is, ‘We don’t want these girls arrested.’ Okay, here is the solution that won’t get them arrested: We contact them and try to get them social services or other aid. At the same time, we screen for trafficking. Is that not the overall solution that we want?”

True, over the years, he has found a few women who he believed had chosen to be commercial sex providers.

“If we find a few girls here and there, and they are really rare – Alison and I refer to them as the unicorns – and they’re truly doing it on their own, okay,” he says. “Good for them. Hope it works out.”

He remains skeptical because he says that, among the multiple hundreds of women he’s met who are engaged in prostitution, he can count those who were doing it by choice with no third party involved on one hand. He has one other barometer he uses regarding the commercial sex industry.

“When we do the trainings, I ask this one question of everybody in the class, but it’s mainly towards the women, again, because women are the majority of the victims,” he says. “I say, Is there anyone in this room when they were 13-, 14-, 15-years-old who ever thought to themselves, ‘Gosh, when I grow up, I just want to be a prostitute’? I’ve never heard anybody say ‘Yes,’ because people don’t want to do it. The only ones who tell you that people want to do it are traffickers or people who have a political agenda.”

The times he has tried to discuss the issue with anyone who argues for legalizing prostitution or decriminalizing sex work he says the conversation usually quickly degenerates into name calling with them telling him he’s “just a dumb police officer” or that he’s a racist.

“All of that has nothing to do with the argument because they have no argument,” Nash says. “But that’s where they go because they know that shuts down the conversation with most people.”

We also discussed what some effective measures to reduce the demand side would be. He explained that there are two types of buyers that they encounter: low-frequency and high-frequency. The former are “dabblers” who purchases sex a few times a year but it’s not a lifestyle for him. Typically, they have a wife and children at home, are the Little League or soccer coach – meaning normal dad type of guys – and have a decent-paying job.

“When they realize the police are going after buyers, that’s a big incentive for them not to do it because they don’t want to get caught and have their wife find out, lose half their stuff, lose their kids and end up paying child support, maybe lose their house in a nice neighborhood, their job,” Nash says. “That’s why it’s an effective deterrent for low-frequency buyers.”

High-frequency buyers, on the other hand, are incorrigible. They are most likely involved in other criminal activities, are committing sexual assaults, domestic violence, are using and/or selling drugs, etc. They are not intimidated by the threat of going to jail, because they’ve probably already served time.

“The high-frequency buyers account for 15% of the buyers, but they make up about 75% of the money,” Nash says. “So, for them, it’s a lifestyle.”

John Schools where offenders are sometimes sent to be educated about the horrors behind prostitution for many of the victims of trafficking and other impacts on a community such as the spread of STIs have proven effective with low-frequency buyers but completely useless for high-frequency buyers. Nash mentions one organization that he believes is quite effective, the Epik Project. The faith-based group of men is comprised mostly former sex buyers themselves. They place fake ads online, and when a man calls the number, they talk to them about what they’re doing and the impact it has on the trafficking victims. Currently, they have more than a dozen groups in various cities such as Denver, Phoenix and Portland, and Nash has worked with the organization in Kansas City.

Nash is also hopeful that the growing movement for state legislations to make the purchase of sex a felony rather than a misdemeanor will have a significant impact on reducing demand. Thus far, Texas is the only state to have enacted the law, but a number of other states are close to passing one, including Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

“That means anyone with a professional license – a doctor, nurse, lawyer, teacher, police officer, accountant – will lose that license if convicted of a felony,” he says. “That forces low-frequency buyers to go, ‘Oh shit. I’m going to lose my license!’ I guarantee you would see the demand drop significantly. High-frequency buyers are more criminal element, had-core people, and jail is the only way to stop them from buying sex.”

Next Up: Kandice “Candy” Clark, a transgender sex worker in Florida who was almost murdered by a John but bravely fought him off and helped police identify him. He was arrested, convicted and served time in prison.