Is the detainee a suspected offender, a human trafficking victim, or both? The Dilemma for Custody Sergeants, First Responders, Appropriate Adults and Police Station Reps

The portrayal on TV of human trafficking investigations usually involves large scale police operations where a house or warehouse is raided and thirty to forty human trafficking victims are discovered chained to beds or walls, in the dark, and the victims are emancipated and in poor health. I have worked with law enforcement on human trafficking operations around the World, and this portrayal is rarely the reality. The whole point of human trafficking is to exploit the individuals, hence they are unlikely to be found in a state where they cannot work for their traffickers or enforcers due to the fact they are chained up all day and in very poor health. Most victims of human trafficking will be found outside in the local community or working in factories or fields. Many will only come into contact with the police due to the fact they have been suspected of committing a crime or are the victim of a crime. Their first contact with the police will be a response officer or a neighbourhood PCSO. Human trafficking victims are warned by their traffickers not to speak to the police, and may come across as hostile.

At a meeting with frontline police a few weeks ago, we discussed the daunting task for a custody sergeant in terms of identifying potential victims of human trafficking in the cells. The decision that the custody sergeant makes in the first few hours after an arrested person is presented to them at the custody desk can make or break a human trafficking investigation. This may sound dramatic, but unfortunately it is the reality.

For example, a 12 year old child is arrested for pickpocketing. The child states that they do not speak fluent English. The child is entitled to an appropriate adult in custody, the child provides a number which she says is her dad’s number. A call is made to dad who agrees to come down to the custody suite. On arrival he is polite and apologetic for his daughter’s behaviour and asks to speak to her. He then speaks to her in their native language, says that his daughter is ‘Sorry’. Is this a concerned father and contrite daughter, or a trafficking victim who has been told by her trafficker or enforcer that if she says anything he will hurt her younger sister?

The language spoken by the child is not one regularly heard in the police station, an interpreter has been requested but will not be available for a few hours, the custody sergeant is being pressurised by an officer who is due to go off shift soon and wants to interview, it is now after midnight, and the child has already been in custody for two and a half hours. Dad has stated that he speaks perfect English and is happy to interpret, he doesn’t want his daughter detained in the cells any longer than absolutely necessary, and as he is present he doesn’t see the need for lawyer, his daughter has admitted to him that she stole the mobile phone as she wanted the same type as the other girls at the school and he had told her she had better save up for one, but she stupidly saw a phone hanging out of someone’s jean pocket and decided to take it.

Due to the nature of the offence, the father’s concern and his sensible approach, it may be the best decision that the interview go ahead with Dad interpreting, hence the child is not detained at the police station late at night, and the matter can be resolved that evening. But, if Dad is a trafficker or enforcer, throughout the interview the child could be saying “he makes me steal” for which Dad’s interpretation may be “I am sorry, I apologise, I know it was wrong”.

In the latter scenario, the child may receive a reprimand or final warning for an offence for which they have a defence, but just as important, the child will see the police working with the trafficker or enforcer and not protecting her and will be highly unlikely to ever trust the police again. Add into this mix the fact that the police will release a victim back into the hands of a trafficker or enforcer, igniting huge safeguarding issues.

Those who work on human trafficking investigations are aware of the large amount of false documentation often found in premises used to house trafficking victims. This documentation is usually good quality and hence it can be simple for a trafficker to produce documentation indicating that they are the child’s father – especially in cases where the child has also been used for benefit fraud as well as pickpocketing.

Contrast the above scenario with the case of three detainees who tell the police that they are aged 15, when in actual fact one is age 20 and actively working as an enforcer of the other two. If a custody sergeant decides that there is a likelihood of the detainees being trafficking victims, and treats them all as victim, this may jeopardise any investigation into their criminal activities and again, the trafficking victims may see the police as being ‘soft’ on their enforcer and assume that he has paid off the police (as is common in many of the Origin countries for the trafficking victims). Hence the enforcer’s victims will not be open to the police, and the enforcer may be released into the hands of the social services and have disappeared within 24 hours.

These are just two of the many scenarios which a custody sergeant may face, there are many others. For example if a potential trafficking victim is kept in a cell for a few hours while the investigating officer/arresting officer decides whether that detainee is a victim or potentially involved in criminal activity, or both, any trust that the victim had in the police may have been lost by the police placing them in the exact same situation as the traffickers – locking them in a room and telling them not to worry as they are safe. The alternative is to treat the detainee as a potential victim, but this may have serious implications for any future investigation and prosecution if it can be argued that even the police did not suspect them as being involved in criminal activity. Ultimately this always has to be an operational decision, but it is a decision that should be made with awareness of the issues surrounding potential human trafficking victims.

Hence, while each police authority may have set up specialist units to investigate human trafficking, it may be the custody sergeant who plays the most important part in making or breaking the trust of a human trafficking victim. I do not, for one minute, suggest that custody sergeants and initial arresting officers are not going to recognise that in some situations the relationship between a child and a appropriate adult does not seem right, but taking the leap from this to recognising a potential human trafficking victim may be difficult.

Migrant Helpline is a Home Office/UK Human Trafficking Centre recognised first responder for potential human trafficking victims and offers free training to frontline officers and custody sergeants on identifying human trafficking victims and the current human trafficking trends. For more information contact Alison Gurden on 

About gurdena

Social Justice Barrister, interested in all things contentious & anything criminal justice related including prisoners and complaints against the police. Specialising in criminal law - mainly sex, violence, and football fans (not necessarily all 3 at the same time!). Represents people facing death penalty in the USA. Associate Member at Drystone Chambers

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