Super-Complaint Against Police Practice in Responding to Modern Slavery

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Amongst specialists, experts and organisations that work towards combatting modern slavery and human trafficking, there is acknowledgement that a weak link in the chain of response is with the initial interaction between victims of slavery and the police. This leads to downstream issues in an effective slavery response as cooperation with the victim is critical to prosecuting the offenders. Modern slavery operations reported by UK police forces raised by 250% in 2018, however only 7% of the recorded cases of modern slavery are reported to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). This produces subsequently low numbers of prosecutions for perpetrators of modern slavery within the UK. 

This issue has triggered UK charity Hestia to make the first police super-complaint on modern slavery response. This aims to highlight the harmful patterns in policing seen within the actions of non-specialist police as first responders, and create plans to overcome these barriers. Testimonials from victims of modern slavery, and experts including academic researchers, legal experts, voluntary sector organisations that work in the slavery response, including HTMSE founder and director Philippa Southwell gave evidence during 2018-2019 to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Modern Slavery towards the complaint. This highlights: 

Within the police forces, there is a lack of understanding of modern slavery, human trafficking and exploitation and the process in which they should respond. Officers often fail to recognise the signs of exploitation, and therefore fail to engage with the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and the duty to notify the Home Office upon identification of a potential victim. 

“There is a duty to notify under the Modern Slavery Act and the police are first responders, but I am not seeing the police making NRM referrals at that initial stage.” Evidence by Philippa Southwell.

Subsequently, as victims are treated as criminals upon their first interaction with the police, they are being alienated by the CJS. They are often treated as immigration offenders, or if they are engaged in crimes which they have been forced to commit by their exploiters they are treated as criminals. Treating victims with this contempt undermines the system by creating barriers for the victim to trust the police or the process in which they are rehabilitated. 

“We are still prosecuting individuals on a daily basis when there are key trafficking indicators. […] If we continue to prosecute victims of forced criminality, we will continue to have low prosecution rates for modern slavery-related cases. Almost all of my clients that have been prosecuted do not want to co-operate with a subsequent or parallel investigation into their exploitation because they feel they are not believed.”  Evidence by Philippa Southwell 

Some of the bad police practice highlighted by Hestia is when police forces fail to adequately investigate cases that come to their attention. If they do pursue investigation, issues in their response often include: 

  • victims feeling like they were not believed by the police officers;
  •  officers prioritising pursuing immigration offences over protecting victims;
  • female victims of sexual exploitation being interviewed by male officers using male interpreters; 
  • and victims not being informed by the police that they had decided to drop the investigation into their exploiters and traffickers.

This exacerbates the potential mistrust of authority caused by the trauma of their exploiters, or the fear that cooperating with police may cause retributions from their exploiters. Further trauma may be caused by their experience in the system, particularly in having to relay information about their exploitation.

“Victims are often criminalised and will be interviewed as suspects under caution. The current College of Policing guidance regarding interrogations of victims involved in forced criminality is inadequate. Police are regularly arresting victims and treating them as suspects first and foremost, even when there are significant trafficking indicators present when arrests are made. In our experience, victims who are treated as suspects and/or defendants at any stage are highly unlikely to cooperate with the authorities as a victim either at that time or at a later stage.” Evidence by Ben Douglas QC, Michelle Brewer (Barrister) and Philippa Southwell (Solicitor Advocate)

Although the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was a landmark forward in tackling modern slavery from a legislatorial standpoint, the message it sends must be carried through the to grass roots actions of policing. Good practice of police depends upon an understanding of the complex trauma that victims have experienced. Creating a safe space to conduct interviews of victims is critical, which allows for the flexibility of individual cases, engaging trusted support workers and the use of neutral and non-judgmental language. There has been advancement in police practice by the operation of specialist modern slavery units, as well as funding for the Modern Slavery Police and Transformation Unit in 2017.  Although some training of police forces exists, it is absent from the ongoing professional development of forces in the UK. Mandatory and effective modern slavery training must be integrated into police practice in order to adequately combat this complex crime.