A Case for Restructuring Law Enforcement

What I’ve learned from three years of building software to help combat human trafficking

I never set out to design software for police. But a few years ago, there was a smart grad student working on software to combat human trafficking, and she needed a new PhD advisor. I said I’d advise her. Sex trafficking generates terabytes of data — prostitution ads and sex worker reviews. Our project uses big data and information visualization techniques to help identify women who are participating involuntarily — finding the trafficking victims among legions of voluntary sex workers. To make sure we are building something that is really helpful, we do user-centered design — working with law enforcement to try to understand the challenges of their jobs and how computer science can help.

The officers I work with are professional, hard-working, and caring. But it’s not clear that all their dedication is doing much to solve the problem of human trafficking in any fundamental sense. Our collaborators told us that in the last year their unit has rescued eleven women from human trafficking. Eleven women and girls helped out of modern- day slavery is a real accomplishment. Except that later they mentioned that three of the cases were the same person. After she was “rescued,” she had no way to make a living and went back to the organization that was trafficking her. Twice.

The task assigned to the unit we work with is to identify cases of human trafficking, build a legal case against the perpetrators, and introduce the victims to social services. (The social service support available is regrettably limited.) But is this all really addressing the problem? The more I learn about this area, the more I have come to believe that the problem is poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Poverty that makes people vulnerable to being trafficked. And poverty and lack of opportunity that makes people vulnerable to becoming traffickers. Because they’re people too, and their stories are also tragic. Running around “rescuing” victims without providing for their future is not fixing things.

Here’s one example of a better model for how to help victims. Annie Cannons (https://anniecannons.org/) is an NGO that hires survivors of human trafficking and trains them to be web designers. By giving them jobs and a supportive community, they change women’s lives. The web design work the firm does is high enough quality that the NGO expects to be financially self-sustaining in a few years. The co-founder of Annie Canons told me that most women could voluntarily leave a trafficking situation, if they had somewhere to go. We need more programs like Annie Cannons — well-designed social service programs that help people to build successful lives.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police, we are at a historic moment where rethinking policing may be possible. I’m not an expert on these issues, but based on what I’ve learned through working with police for the last three years, I believe we need to restructure so that law enforcement is part of a larger social services agency. The social services mission should be primary, and law enforcement is in service to that mission. Further, we need to redesign incentives for law enforcement officers so they are more strongly rewarded and promoted for helping people in the community.

These sorts of steps are being explored now in cities like Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and I see this as a historic, hopeful moment. When many people hear slogans like “defund the police” or “abolish the police,” I don’t think they understand what is really being proposed. I would rephrase it as: “restructure the police,” or “help the police to be better helpers.” Or “social services first, law enforcement second.”

It’s inspiring to see Black activists demanding change on these issues and leading with innovative proposals. I follow their lead and look forward to listening and learning more from everything that is going on. The literature on evidence-based policing also has a lot to offer. (Check out this article and this Twitter thread for nice summaries.)

I share this story because it is an example not directly related to police violence which supports the broader point: the current state of affairs is not fixable without structural change.

Members of the Army of Science (mods of the subreddit r/science) provided comments on this post, but all mistakes are my own.

I do research on social media, including online collaboration, social movements, and online moderation and harassment.

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