Helms School of Government


Doctor of Philosophy in Criminal Justice (PhD)


Sharon Gordon Mullane


cognitive dissonance, human trafficking, sex trafficking, under-identified victims, victim-centered approach, gender differences


Social and Behavioral Sciences


This study explored the topic of human trafficking with a focus on the perspectives of local law enforcement officers located in California, Florida, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. The purpose of this phenomenological study was to examine officers’ perceptions relating to the under-identification of sex trafficking victims and the victim-centered approach to human trafficking. The problems addressed in this study are that the identification of victims of human trafficking has not been effective, under-identification has long been a problem, and victims are undercounted. The theory guiding this study is Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, as officers may experience cognitive dissonance during their routine law enforcement work. The study utilized an email survey instrument consisting of open-ended questions that were sent to officers who held the rank of police officer or sergeant (or the equivalent). The survey was administered through SurveyMonkey®. The survey responses were manually coded and analyzed; the results were then analyzed using QSR®NVivo 12 to ensure correlation with the manual coding analysis. The major findings of this study are as follows: officers believe the victim-centered approach to human trafficking is a compassionate tool for empowering individuals who are powerless and that mistrust in law enforcement remains a significant barrier to implementing the victim-centered approach to human trafficking and building relationships with victims. The officers’ agreed almost unanimously that sex trafficking victims are under-identified and that more training on prostitution and human trafficking is needed.