How Mass Transit Puts the Brakes on Human Trafficking  

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bus depot

Bus depot, Salinas, CA. Photo by Rick Warren via Flickr

Just about everyone in law enforcement is familiar with two acronyms: APB and BOLO.

Notification from a dispatcher of an “All-Points Bulletin” or a “Be on the Lookout” will get any cop’s immediate attention.

But how many are familiar with TAT or BOTL?  Most likely, only those assigned to human trafficking investigations know about “Truckers Against Trafficking” or “Busing on the Lookout”—programs developed to enlist long-haul truck drivers, bus drivers and transit facility employees into the battle against human trafficking.

A number of states require applicants for a commercial driver’s license to complete some form of trafficking training.  And since Jan. 1, a California law now requires that employees of intercity and light-rail systems be trained to recognize and report signs of human trafficking.

The law is modeled after training instituted by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in 2015 in advance of Super Bowl 50 in 2016, based on concerns that sporting events are magnets for sex trafficking.

See: ‘Game Over’ Nabs 147 in Super Bowl Sex Trafficking Investigation

Formed in 2009, TAT trains truckers to recognize and report activities associated with human trafficking.  According to Polaris, the non-profit, non-governmental agency that has operated the National Human Trafficking Hotline since 2007, sex trafficking is common at truck stops.  Their remote locations and male-dominated customer base make them prime areas for prostitution.  In some instances, meets are arranged in advance, but solicitations can be arranged over CB radios or simply by knocking on truck cab doors offering sex to potential buyers.

Truckers who are offered sex or who observe suspicious behavior are encouraged to call the National Hotline, 1-888-373-7888 (text BeFree 233733).  Canadian tips can be submitted to the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline, 1-833-900-1010.

The hotlines are promoted on decals affixed to trucks, at truck stops, and in industry publications.  According to Polaris, since 2009, more than 700 cases of potential sex trafficking at truck stops have been reported; more than half were called in by truckers.

Through BOTL, TAT trains bus drivers to recognize and report signs of trafficking, including, for instance, youthful travelers who are not permitted to speak but defer to older companions, or who have no identification, appear fearful and furtive, or have bodily injuries.  Training events that can be accessed at are held regularly for truckers and bus drivers, including school bus drivers.

Like truckers, drivers are discouraged from taking direct action, but rather to “Make the Call, Save Lives.”

Training videos highlight survivors (the term preferred over victims) who recall bus drivers as their saviors, sometimes by simply noticing they were alone on buses or in bus stations at odd times; carried all their possessions in a garbage bag, shopping bag or battered backpack, or were inappropriately dressed for the climate or time of year.

One survivor recalled that when a bus driver asked her name, which she had almost forgotten after prostituting under various aliases, she realized she retained enough personal identify to flee her pimp.

Combating ‘White Slavery’

The nexus between transit and trafficking has a long history.

During the Progressive Era (1880s to 1920s) women established the Traveler’s Aid Society in England and then in the United States.  The goal was to protect young women, often runaways or working-class immigrants, from being lured into “white slavery.”  The narrative, underpinned by racism and nativism, described young white women falling into the hands of dangerous, usually foreign, men believed to accost them at rail stations and groom them for prostitution.

When the women met with only limited success getting local police or railroads to assign women to look out for traffickers, they began to staff stations themselves, although in some cities, policewomen were assigned to station waiting rooms.  After World War I, the racially neutral term “sex trafficking” replaced white slavery.

The current term, “human trafficking,” includes not only those trafficked for sex but also those ensnared into labor bondage.

Today, buses and bus stations are more likely than trains and rail stations to attract youths leaving home.  During the 1980s, when young runaways from around the country gravitated to New York, they were mostly found in and around the 42nd Street bus terminal operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey between 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan.

Disdaining the drop-in centers and shelters run by non-profit associations, many preferred to congregate at the station.  While not as melodramatically written as the earlier white slavery sagas, newspapers, magazines, and even dissertations described youths, some now termed “throwaways” because they were often unwanted at home, who turned to prostitution to maintain themselves.

 In a 2018 survey by Polaris, 42 percent of survivors confirmed that they or their traffickers used local or long-distance buses to move around. Some 33 percent used public buses, and 19 percent used long-distance buses.  Twenty-seven percent travelled by train, including 11 percent on long-distance trains and 19 percent on subways.  And 26 percent stated that public transit played a role in at least one of their attempts to flee their captors.

Overall, 63 percent were transported on some combination of mass transit including buses, subways, taxis, and rideshares.

Buses and trains are particularly attractive to both traffickers and survivors because they are inexpensive and provide considerable anonymity when buying tickets. And despite bus stations often being the location where traffickers find their victims, Annie Sovcik, a Busing on the Lookout director, has described them as being the first places that provide precious moments when a victim becomes a survivor, finding a way to escape captivity.

Although airports are unlikely locations to pick up young people, a 2014 Urban Institute report found that 71 percent of labor trafficking victims surveyed had arrived in the U.S. by plane before they were trafficked.  The most common layover cities included Miami, San Francisco, Atlanta, and New York.  Because of this, airlines are training in-flight and ground personnel to recognize signs of trafficking, although because exploitation may have not yet begun, the signs are not as obvious as on ground transportation.

Aware of the connection between transit and trafficking, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has a number of programs aimed at disrupting the link.  It has piggybacked on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) well-known “See Something, Say Something” with the slogan “Make the Call, Save Lives” and with transit-specific taglines such as “Put the Brakes on Human Trafficking,” “On the Road to End Human Trafficking. Know. Watch. Report.” and “Not on MY BUS. Not on MY TRAIN. Not in MY COMMUNITY!”

Earlier this year, DOT awarded more than $5 million to 24 agencies, including urban and rural transit systems, to develop public safety awareness campaigns and additional programs and training to fight the use of public transportation by traffickers.  Funds have also gone to transit associations, non-profit organizations, and local governments.

Trafficking in Indigenous Women

The National Transportation Research Board has developed research and training specifically on trafficked, missing and murdered indigenous women after the National Congress of American Indians found that close to 40 percent of women who are sex trafficked in the U.S. and Canada identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, or First Nations.

At a time when police resources are becoming more limited through defunding and retirements of experienced officers, TAT and BOTL are examples of how an industry can augment law enforcement efforts to deter a crime that is difficult to detect.

dorothy schulz

Dorothy Schulz

Other models exist. Houston, for instance, requires the 500-odd hotels and motels in the city to train employees to spot trafficking and to contact police when they suspect illegal activity.  Facilities must also post signs listing indicators of trafficking, and phone numbers of local and national law enforcement.

Although both transit and the lodging industries are currently focused on COVID-19-related mitigations and on business recovery, it is very likely that similar requirements will spread to other cities and states hoping to provide an escape route for human trafficking survivors.

Dorothy Moses Schulz, Ph.D., is an emerita professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and a retired MTA-Metro North Railroad Police captain who has served as a safety and security consultant to transit agencies across the country.

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