Interview with Lt John Vanek, Human Trafficking Task Force, SJPD
Today I interview Lieutenant John Vanek on the Human Trafficking Task Force of the San Jose Police Department. I first met John at the Freedom Summit. What I appreciated most about him was that here was clearly someone on the front lines of the fight against trafficking, measured in his use of language, able to partner with all sorts of different organizations to get the job done, and in it for the long haul.
NG: John, tell us what your role is and how it fits into a national law enforcement effort against human trafficking
JV: Since 2005 the San Jose Police Department has been funded through a grant from the United States Department of Justice to create and manage a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary anti-trafficking task force. We were one of the original agencies to receive this grant. The program now includes about 40 such task forces across the country. I’ve managed the program since 2006.
The program is designed so local law enforcement agencies organize task force representatives from a variety of local and federal agencies. Our task force includes representatives from our department, the FBI, ICE, the United States Attorney’s Office, U.S. Department of Labor, our District Attorney’s office, and other local law enforcement agencies.
We work in collaboration with the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking, a collection of victim-services providers. The Coalition is also funded by the Department of Justice, and we have formal agreements to work together to identify and rescue victims of trafficking. We also work on training local law enforcement officers in recognizing trafficking victims or situations, and we also put a lot of effort into raising the public’s awareness of trafficking.
I’ve been very fortunate. My role with the task force has given me the opportunity to engage a large number of governmental and non-governmental agencies across the country. We work closely with the Polaris Project, who maintains the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Reporting Hotline (888-3737-888).
All of the task forces are working toward a better understanding of how we can all share expertise and information to best assist victims and investigate cases.
NG: What is the most shocking thing you have become aware of in the course of your work?
JV: I often hear comments about how shocking, or terrible, trafficking is. While that is true, in 24-years of police work I’ve seen too many terrible things. Being a victim of violent crime is a terrible thing, whether the victim has suffered sexual assault, domestic violence or other trauma. I really try to avoid comparing tragedies.
That said, the scope of slavery, worldwide, is amazing, with estimates that as many as 27 million people are enslaved today. As I began my involvement in the anti-trafficking movement, another element that surprised me was the socio-economic scope over which trafficking occurs. Trafficking occurs everywhere. One of my favorite sayings is, “If you think you don’t have trafficking in your community, your not looking for trafficking.” In the trainings we give, we try to get people to understand that they have to closely examine the cultural and socio-economic make-up of their communities. Doing so may give them a better idea of how trafficking may be discovered. Trafficking looks different in different communities.
NG: You must see some egregious crimes against people in the course of your work. What gives you the most cause for hope in tackling trafficking?
JV: What gives me the most hope, and makes my current work so rewarding, is the level of commitment of so many people within the anti-trafficking community. It is important to understand that our nation’s response to trafficking is really just ten years old, starting when Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000. And much of the support for victim-services and law enforcement task forces began around 2005.
So both from a governmental and non-governmental standpoint, most of us have been learning about trafficking as we’ve developed programs, investigated cases, and discovered how victims are exploited. Human Trafficking is the most complicated subject in law enforcement I’ve encountered, and outside of law enforcement it is just as complicated. Victims of trafficking have unique needs, and agencies that don’t have a history of working together need to learn how to do so, because no one single agency can assist a victim or investigate a case. We all have to work together to raise awareness and understanding of trafficking.
So many of the people within the anti-trafficking community are really dedicated and energetic, and just working to end slavery. This work brings together people and organizations with really divergent views on other subjects, but we are all abolitionists.
I can tell you that in all of my varied experiences in law enforcement, I’ve never partnered with social entrepreneurs like Trade As One, collaborated on a training project with Stanford Medical Center like we are now, worked with so many different federal agencies and victim services providers, or such a wide variety of faith-based organizations. Fighting slavery brings me and my partner, Officer Jenn Dotzler, into contact with all of these. The people we meet are truly inspiring to me. They give me faith in the future. And after 24 years of policing, I can use all of the positive energy I can find.
NG: What can we do to help your efforts and those of your colleagues in similar positions in police forces around the country?
JV: Talk about trafficking within your communities. Not just your neighborhood communities, but your work and faith communities, too. Raising awareness can help law enforcement agencies understand the importance of this issue, and make anti-trafficking work a higher priority. Task forces like ours’ offer training to law enforcement. Ask your local police or sheriff what they are doing to assist victims or investigate potential cases.
There are several great sources of information on trafficking, including the Polaris Project website. (www.polarisproject.org)
I also believe we all need to continue our personal study of trafficking; how and why it occurs, how is it linked to supply and demand both in labor and sex trafficking, and how we as individuals can be unwitting beneficiaries of slave labor, and how we impact slavery in the course of our lives. We all need to work together if we want to abolish slavery.