Governments' efforts to combat human trafficking have shifted in recent years from a tough-on-crime approach to one focused on identifying and helping the victims. Now three cities -- Atlanta, Chicago and Minneapolis -- will push that paradigm shift even further.

Each have won funding from an initiative called the Partnership for Freedom, which challenged cities to imagine better ways to coordinate cross-agency anti-trafficking efforts.

“The winning cities demonstrated a commitment to address all victims of sex and labor trafficking,” says Megan Tackney, program manager for Partnership for Freedom, a public-private partnership dedicated to spurring innovation in the fight to end human trafficking, which led the challenge along with the NoVo Foundation and Humanity United. “They showed all the city services and areas they could think of that could help in addressing trafficking."

Each city will receive funding for a senior fellow to work for two years on improving anti-trafficking policies and practices, along with money for technical assistance and other resources and support.

The three cities, culled from dozens of applicants across the nation, will focus on ways to better identify and engage victims of human trafficking. The winning proposals used examples of their cities' existing work on everything from wage exploitation to child welfare services. Chicago, for instance, highlighted a previous effort working with federal agencies to secure housing vouchers for 60 human trafficking survivors.

Hopefully, what will emerge from the plans are multi-faceted approaches to combating trafficking, according to the partnership. A city could, for instance, expand its immigrant victims services or develop new relationships with existing community organizations already working with victims of trafficking and their families.

Success in these cities will depend on how well they can identify when trafficking occurs, which in itself can be a challenge, says Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a professor at George Mason University and author of a book on slavery in modern America.

Mehlman-Orozco has long been an advocate for decriminalizing sex work (which often involves trafficking victims forced to work against their will) and using methods beyond policing to help people being trafficked. 

“Trafficking is hard to measure, and that’s why [we] need more funding and resources so we can know how large the problem is,” she says. “What does trafficking look like? Do police officers know what trafficking looks like? And the first thing to do is measure the problem and know where the gaps are before we set policy and begin to make laws.”

Getting law enforcement to recognize trafficking when it happens can indeed be a challenge. Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal says that when she first began asking city police officers whether human trafficking was a problem there, she was told it wasn’t.

“We weren’t seeing these cases,” Segal says.

But as they dug a little deeper, what emerged were robust sex trafficking rings that preyed on juveniles and adults. Immediately, the city set up beds in safehouses for juvenile victims of sex trafficking, although Segal admits more beds are needed. 

Across the country, states, counties and cities are changing their approach to trafficking.

In 2010, New York became the first state to allow a person who committed a crime while being trafficked to have her criminal record wiped clean. Half of the states in the U.S. followed suit. In 2016, California became the 18th state to make minors immune from prosecution for prostitution.

While sex trafficking grabs headlines, sex workers aren’t the only people being trafficked. Labor trafficking is also a problem across the country, according to Mehlman-Orozco. Like the underground sex industry, numbers are hard to come by, and the crime is difficult to track. 

Labor trafficking is especially prevalent among undocumented immigrants. Employers will often steal wages or passports, which makes it hard for the immigrant to return to their country or begin the process of applying for legal status. Minneapolis plans to expand its labor trafficking enforcement as part of its Partnership for Freedom efforts.

“In enforcing the minimum wage, we have the opportunity to see who is being exploited in labor trafficking,” says Segal.