Human trafficking in the Tampa Bay area is a problem — but, because Florida has no centralized data collection, no one knows just how much.
A bill recently signed into law aims to correct that, making a lab in downtown St. Petersburg the home of a new data bank working to shed light on a shadowy crime in our area.
Housed at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, the lab — called the USF Trafficking in Persons (TiP) Risk to Resilience Lab — will collect and analyze anonymized data from across the state.
Human trafficking, an umbrella term for everything from child forced labor to commercial sex trafficking, is not unique to Florida.
But the Tampa area is especially susceptible, notes Joan Reid, director of the TiP Lab, since many vulnerable people are drawn to its warm climate as they seek better opportunities.
Tampa’s conventions, tourist attractions and sports teams all draw an influx of traffickers, she said, as well as people susceptible to being exploited.
In recent years, human trafficking has become a buzzword, namely due to QAnon believers spreading conspiracy theories revolving around nonexistent trafficking cabals at the upper echelons of global power. Reid said those conspiracies “detract from those who are most vulnerable and drown them out by oversensationalization.” Human trafficking, she emphasized, is a real problem that needs serious attention.
About 800 Florida residents were victims or survivors of human trafficking in 2021, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s report from that year. But the hotline received far more calls from people who did not identify where they were from or whether they were a victim.
A database that attempts to aggregate trafficking cases in a given area does not exist in Florida, experts said — in fact, similar efforts only exist in Texas and Louisiana. But this database aims to go further, attempting to find what Reid calls “the dark figure of the crime,” or unreported instances of human trafficking. People might not report for many reasons: a mistrust of law enforcement, a fear of retaliation, a language barrier or a disbelief that they are actually being exploited.
“The more that we can understand the trend, the better we can address the problem, and the more efficient we can be with the resources we have,” Reid said.
Reid, who has researched sex trafficking for 15 years after working as a rape crisis counselor in Pinellas County, opened the TiP lab in 2020 to unify research across USF’s three campuses. Around 10 faculty and 10 graduate students are working on lab projects at any given time.
Emily Walker and Klejdis Bilali, both graduate students in the lab pursuing doctorates in criminology, said Florida’s trafficking landscape is currently so muddled that researchers can’t pinpoint clear, foundational statistics, such as prevalence rates.
Through the work, Walker said she has been able to connect with survivors.
“It has been eye-opening just to hear their voices,” she said, “because their voices get lost in all of this.”
In the past few years, the lab has worked with local anti-trafficking groups to understand their needs. It has built a survivors’ network, connecting victims with help like safe housing and healthcare. And researchers have tried to dig deeper into critical questions, such as how traffickers operate.
“We’ve done quite a bit in such a short time,” Dr. Reid said.
The recent bill signing will allow them to do even more.
The legislation will allow the lab to work with law enforcement and other state agencies to collect police reports and screenings, revealing hotspots and trends. Researchers will also collect victim surveys focused on incidents that went unreported.
“I wanted to know what’s happening in my backyard, rather than a state view,” Reid said.
Kathleen Kempke, compliance analyst and former senior director of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, says that having information on trends will help the center make sure that they are providing trafficked clients with what is proven to be helpful, rather than their predictions.
“People who are trafficked are in the background, and nobody sees them or knows what they need,” she said. “This database will tell us.”