Blue Line

Committed to helping human trafficking victims

February 5, 2015  By Mark Saunders

Compared to the street-level prostitution of 20 years ago, present-day human trafficking is significantly more complex. Over the past several years there has been a shift in mindset within both policing and legal circles that recognizes sex trade workers much more as victims than offenders. This is resulting in enforcement moving away from street-level sex trade workers toward pimps and criminal networks that profit from sexual exploitation.

The enactment of human trafficking laws, along with public safety grants for human trafficking enforcement, shows that government has also adopted this new mindset. The Criminal Code now includes sections defining human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, in addition to exploitation for the purpose of forced labour.

As policing agencies have responded to this shift with new strategies and redeployed resources, the complex nature of human trafficking investigations has been exposed. In peeling away the layers, investigators have discovered a disturbing degree of procurement and exploitation (supported by on-line advertising and social media control), links to violent street gangs, complex legal issues and perhaps most challenging – victim management.

{Challenges of victim management}


By nature, human trafficking is clandestine and under-reported. There are a myriad of reasons for this including stigmatization, concerns regarding immigration status, cultural and familial implications and fear of reprisals from the exploiter. Beyond these, experience has taught us that victims of human trafficking sometimes come from marginalized communities where money is used to prey on vulnerability.

While increased enforcement may ultimately lead to more cases being reported, the reality is that it is incumbent on police services to take a pro-active approach to human trafficking in order to identify victims and arrest offenders. This is where the real challenge begins in that the same factors preventing victims from reporting their exploitation often prevent them from wanting to cooperate with investigators.

Moreover, the psychological and physical well-being of victims often create obstacles for investigators as PTSD and drug addiction are common afflictions amongst victims of human trafficking and especially sexual exploitation.

Who are we to criticize a victim of sex trafficking for not wanting to participate in a process that many perceive will: (a) deprive them of their livelihood, (b) lead to their stigmatization, (c) cause them to fear possible physical and psychological retribution from their exploiter and (d) often take them away from the only world they know?

The lengthy and onerous court process, often requiring a victim to testify in the presence of their abuser, only exacerbates the problem. This is the challenge that police investigators have a duty to overcome. Simply put, the necessity to effectively manage victims, while being sensitive to psychological stressors, is a mounting liability that must be mitigated.

A 2014 report published by the found that only 20 per cent of human trafficking victims willingly cooperated in the criminal prosecution of their abuser, while 33 per cent did not cooperate with the investigation at all. Moreover, nearly 20 per cent of cooperative victims stated that their degree of willingness to collaborate with investigators diminished the longer it took for their case to reach a court room.

{Toronto Police Service – Human Trafficking Enforcement Team}

It comes as no surprise that, like other urban centers, human sex trafficking occurs in the City of Toronto. In fact, a CBC news report from June of 2014 described Toronto as a significant transit point within Canada, acting as a “hub” for domestic and international human sex trafficking routes.

While recognizing the magnitude of the problem, the Toronto Police Service (TPS) remains committed to disrupting these criminal organizations through a combination of pro-active enforcement and sustainable and sensitive victim management.

Established in early 2014 – the TPS Human Trafficking Enforcement Team (HTET) actively targets organized crime groups that engage in human trafficking for commercial profit. The HTET has four guiding principles: Prevention, protection, prosecution and partnerships.

Developing and maintaining a victim-centered approach to human trafficking investigations that incorporates these principles ensures that victims are rescued and their recoveries are made a priority. Investigations are multi-dimensional in nature using innovative investigative techniques and current technologies.

In its short existence, the HTET has experienced success ranging from the arrests of individual pimps to the dismantling of sophisticated human trafficking networks.

While the TPS takes pride in the significant year-over-year increases realized in arrest numbers and charges laid, it is this last principle – partnerships – that is assisting with the critically important function of victim rescue, management and support. While HTET investigators continue to work with in-house victims services personnel, our long-term success in victim management also requires an abundance of external partnerships.

To this end, the TPS has cultivated long standing partnerships with several governmental and non-governmental organizations, including Covenant House, East Metro Youth Services, and BOOST Child Abuse Prevention and Intervention. Each is a recognized leader in the field of victim support and has shown a willingness to work with police investigators.

The reality is that these organizations and we in law enforcement share basic common goals: The rescue and rehabilitation of victims of exploitation and the successful prosecution of offenders. Experience is showing us that when we work collaboratively, we all benefit.

In 2014 the TPS registered its first human trafficking conviction under the amended legislation. Covenant House, a not-for-profit support agency in downtown Toronto, was involved from the outset providing ongoing support to the female victims. Working with investigators, its personnel were instrumental in gaining the cooperation of the victims through the investigation as well as the court process. They continue to support the victims in their personal recoveries.

Experience is teaching us that this team approach is working. Long gone are the days where victims of the human sex trade were simply offered a phone number to a victims’ help line and were then subpoenaed to attend court. Toward that end, a protocol is in place in Toronto whereby investigators contact external partners immediately after a victim is identified and rescued. At the earliest stages, these agencies provide psychological support, an initial place of safety, clothing, food and daily necessities.

The TPS is operating in times of austerity. Having dedicated and qualified external partners willing to take on the important role of victim management also allows investigators to focus on what they do best – identifying and arresting the culprits. While reality tells us that we may never eradicate prostitution entirely, we do have an obligation to save as many victims as possible. Without the assistance of external agencies, this is simply not possible. Partnerships really do matter.

Fostering and maintaining strong external partnerships will continue to be a priority for the TPS in 2015 and beyond.

{2015 Toronto Pan Am Games & Human Trafficking}

This summer, Toronto and surrounding municipalities will host the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games. As police officers we understand that a large influx of people presents opportunities for criminals to profit; the perceived “low risk, high reward” world of human trafficking is no different. In hosting a major international sporting event such as Pan Am, we must assume that those who seek to sexually exploit victims will see this as an opportunity.

A Bloomberg Report from July 2007 stated that the sex trade industry “boomed” in Brazil during the ’07 Pan Am Games. Prostitution is not a victimless crime. Simply put, an increase in prostitution equals an increase in victimization. The HTET is committed to not allowing vulnerable members of our communities to be exploited by greedy criminals for the sexual gratification of visitors.

While the Games are months away, the TPS is developing and implementing strategies, including intelligence-led initiatives, to thwart this anticipated “boom” in human trafficking.

We cannot stop the problem entirely but rest assured that extensive resources and innovations will be used to prevent, protect and prosecute. It goes without saying that we will lean heavily on our partners to ensure that those who choose to exploit are held accountable in court.


Alliance Against Modern Slavery, “The Incident of Human Trafficking in Ontario”, June 2014
“Toronto a Hub for Human Trafficking, Report Says”, CBC News, June 14, 2014
*Adriana Brasileiro – “Rio Prostitutes, Like Athletes, Shape Up for Pan American Games”, Bloomberg Report – July 16, 2007


Dep/Chief Mark Saunders has been a Toronto Police Service member for the past 31 years. He is currently in charge of Specialized Operations Command, overseeing 1,200 police officers and 164 civilian members in specialized investigative and response units. They support front line officers in the Community Safety Command and work hand in hand with municipal, provincial and federal agencies. Contact: 416 808-8007.

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