A state assembly bill would make a human trafficking awareness training modeled after the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority’s procedure mandatory for public transportation workers across the state.
Inspired by the VTA training started in 2015, the bill aims to equip public transit workers with the skills to identify and report signs of human trafficking in and around transit systems.
Assemblymember Ash Karla, the bill’s author who served as chair of the VTA while he was a member of the San Jose City Council in 2014, said Assembly Bill 2034 would increase the number of eyes and ears in the community that can recognize human trafficking. It passed the assembly on May 30 and is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We also have to think about those who are driving up and down our streets and moving people every day in our communities and the knowledge that oftentimes human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, occurs along our streets or along our transit nodes and our transit system,” Kalra said. “We want to make sure we do everything we can to combat the scourge of human trafficking.”
From 2008 to 2017, California had the most human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline of any state, making up 15.3% of all 8,524 cases reported to the hotline in 2017. Last year, 1,305 California human trafficking cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Working with the Santa Clara County Human Trafficking Commission and the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking, the VTA began training its 2,000 employees in March 2015. Ruth Silver Taube, the coalition’s legal services chair and an alternate delegate to the commission, led the sessions and continues to supervise human trafficking trainings at new employee orientations.
Through the training, they learn to recognize potential red flags
: related to lack of freedom and control and poor mental and physical health. When they encounter indicators of human trafficking, VTA workers follow a protocol of who to call and what to do.
Taube, who advocated for the bill in Sacramento, said it’s important to make human trafficking training a state-wide requirement for public transportation workers.
“Typically the traffickers move the survivors or the victims around to different cities and counties,” Taube said. “So I think it’s important for combating human trafficking that we have consistent training, or at least comprehensive training even if it isn’t exactly consistent because every locality has its own challenges.”
Besides the VTA, Amtrak began human trafficking awareness training for all of its employees—including train service, onboard service and station workers—in 2012. BART does not currently train its station agents and train operators on the subject, but BART Police do receive such training. BART officers have made four arrests for human trafficking since its training began in 2008, according to Deputy Chief Ed Alvarez.
At Santa Clara University’s Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center where she works as a supervising attorney, Taube said the staff have seen the numbers of human trafficking screenings consistently increase. Although she cannot attribute the increase to transit worker awareness, Taube said the training helps.
“I think it’s very valuable because their expectations and the myths that are perpetuated about trafficking run very deep,” Taube said. “I’ve had transit workers tell me that they’ve looked back on their experiences that they’ve had that they didn’t identify as trafficking. And now they realize that they may well have been.”
In June 2015, VTA bus operator Tim Watson credited the human trafficking training for helping him thwart a child abduction that began in Milpitas and ended in Fremont. He contacted the VTA dispatch center with his suspicions that the kidnapper and victim were aboard his coach, resulting in police officers arresting the suspect when he got off the bus.
However, a human trafficking report by a VTA operator has not directly led to a prosecution, according to Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Paola Estanislao. She prosecutes human trafficking cases and said public transit employees might notice indicators of human trafficking in non-emergency situations. Estanislao added that information may help with future investigations, even if it doesn’t trigger one in that moment.
“You might see something that might not be useful until years or months down the line and we need to be cognizant of that,” Estanislao said.
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who serves as a co-chair of the county Human Trafficking Commission, called the awareness training a force multiplier for law enforcement. Many factors can influence a victim to come forward, including a referral from a bus operator or a sign.
When law enforcement investigates and prosecutes human trafficking cases, they are focused on questions such as where the trafficker took the victim and how they threatened or forced them, not what factors led victims to come forward.
“It’s not like we ask the victims to fill out a survey in terms of how they came to us,” Rosen said. “I think that’s why it’s hard for us to track.”
Seeing many cases originating at or around light rail stations led the county to start the VTA human trafficking awareness training in the first place, according to Rosen. One human trafficking case Estanislao prosecuted started with a sheriff’s deputy patrolling near a light rail platform and pulling over a driver who was trafficking a passenger. In another case, a sex act was negotiated on a VTA platform. Through VTA footage, the John was identified.
The VTA began placing human trafficking posters at transit centers, bus shelters and light rail stations in 2014 after Senate Bill 1193 required certain businesses, including airports and roadside rest areas, to post notices including the national hotline number.
Although human trafficking experts say the posters help with visibility and awareness, it is still difficult to assess their impact.
“It’s hard to get details from trafficking victims about exactly why they sought help or who encouraged them to call or how they got the phone number,” Rosen said. “It’s not information that we’re in the practice of gathering because we’re not sure how relevant it is to what we’re trying to accomplish.”