Florida lawmakers have tasked researchers at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg with collecting and disseminating mountains of human trafficking data to better understand and mitigate the crime.
Recently signed legislation made the USF Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Risk to Resilience Research Lab the statewide repository for information collected by myriad statewide sources. Facility officials will now oversee a unified database that they believe will transform how law enforcement and various stakeholders look at human trafficking.
Senate Bill 7064 also increases victim support and strengthens penalties for convicted traffickers, and the lab’s leadership will now evaluate the effectiveness of state-funded initiatives. Florida currently ranks third nationally for hotline reports.
However, Shelly Wagers, professor of criminology and TIP Lab researcher, explained that siloed data makes human trafficking rates unclear. That impedes efforts to implement meaningful policies, resources and prevention programming.
“We have some idea of data, but it’s kind of flawed and only one piece,” Wagers said. “All crime has a time and place; it has a pattern. So, if you start to get all those pieces of the puzzle … into one place that’s unified, and you can pull it together, now you can see those patterns.”
She added that discerning those links would aid local and state law enforcement interventions. It would also provide a better understanding of trafficking rates, when people are most likely to become victims and how often they move to other locations or remain trapped in one spot.
Wagers noted that numerous state agencies work to combat human and sex trafficking and support victims. Those collect data alongside police departments and the state tip line.
She said the hotline is currently a primary information source. However, there are no follow-up investigations to ensure that someone is a trafficking victim or if multiple people reported the same person.
“So now, someone who wasn’t even a human trafficking victim gets counted twice,” Wagers explained. “Then there are other ones where no one ever calls, but they do come into the system and are appropriately labeled as a human trafficking survivor victim.”
She elaborated that the anonymous, national tip line information that places Florida as the third-worst state for trafficking is not “awful.” Wagers said it is just one data point and difficult to verify.
While there is no state ranking for the region, officials consider Tampa Bay a “hotbed.” Wagers said that is due to the area’s unique characteristics making it favorable for successful criminal or legitimate enterprises.
“If you had to quickly and efficiently move goods, you need access to certain things,” she added. “One is a port, and an international airport and freeways. Where you see these concentrations of human trafficking tips, they are in states – and then cities within the states – that have a couple of those features.
“We (Tampa Bay) happen to have all three.”
A fluctuating transient population and proximity to international borders also make Florida, Tampa Bay and Miami trafficking hotspots.
Wagers called the new designation “a big deal” for St. Petersburg and the campus. She believes the Tip Lab, less than two years old, is an oft-overlooked resource.
Dr. Joan Reid, the facility’s director, has researched human trafficking in Florida since 2007. She has also authored two books and over 50 reports and received a strategic investment from USF to launch the TIP Lab in September 2021.
Wagers said Reid ranks “in the top five in the world as a human trafficking researcher.” She also noted that the crime is receiving more attention and said the lab could become nationally and internationally known as a leading data source.
“I think it could also be a stepping stone for the lab and St. Pete to go, ‘if we’re successful here in Florida, how can we help others replicate this model, or become a national hub.'”
She added that the designation also increases notoriety and community involvement for the St. Pete campus, and could attract students and faculty who want to conduct human trafficking research from a state-sponsored lab. Wagers believes local leaders will also benefit from the new designation.
She relayed that officials from various organizations expressed that they were “flying blind on this issue” and the need for localized data.
“Change, programs, policies – they happen at community level a lot of times, not the full state level,” Wagers said. “So, they need to know what’s happening in their community.”
In addition to becoming the state data repository, the TIP Lab released a centralized, secure platform in collaboration with anti-trafficking professionals and survivors earlier this year. The BRIGHT (Bridging Resources and Information Gaps in Human Trafficking) Network helps victims escape their situations and get back on their feet by streamlining available resources and connecting them with organizations throughout Tampa Bay.