Austin (KXAN) — As the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix Race approaches each year in Austin, it is not uncommon to hear calls to prevent anticipated human trafficking and crime mixing in with the crowds. However, newly published research suggests that before, during, and after the event, there is not a larger than usual uptick in crimes — sex trafficking or otherwise.

The study was led by Alex Piquero, Ph.D., a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas and Australia’s Monash University. KXAN had an exclusive first interview with Piquero about his findings on Thursday.

“What we found was for every single crime type, we found no significant increase in the crimes on the race weekend at all,” Piquero said. “So that’s a really good finding for the citizens of the city of Austin, for the Austin Police Department, for the state of Texas, as well as for the fans and for the Formula One organization, because that means the event here in Austin is a really safe event.”

The research was published Tuesday in the Journal of Experimental Criminology and looks at Austin Police Department data from before, during and after the 2018 Formula 1 Grand Prix Race in Austin to see whether a violent crime, property crime, or sex trafficking-related crime increased then. What the researchers found was that there was no evidence in a spike in major crime in weeks before and after the race. They concluded that crime rates, including for property crimes, violent crimes, and sex-related offenses, didn’t increase during the 2018 race in Austin.

F1 US Grand Prix Auto Racing_365075
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, of Britain, steers his car during the final practice session for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix auto race at the Circuit of the Americas, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The scholars working on this research say their findings are “the most extensive academic look” to date at the potential for F1 Grand Prix events to generate crime.

They looked at crimes related to sex and human trafficking such as aggravated kidnapping, aggravated promotion of prostitution, compelling prostitution, kidnapping prostitution, and trafficking of a person. Over the course of the event weekend in 2018, they only found a single case of aggravated kidnapping, which happened twelve miles from Circuit of the Americas (COTA) where the race happens.

The researchers did mention a caveat — that sex crimes are difficult to collect data on through official records because recorded evidence of these crimes usually depends on police actions (like arrests) and may not account for any under-reporting which happens.

However, the researchers make the case for a more nuanced look at assumptions about how crime and sex trafficking could be linked to F1 races and other large events.

“The findings of our study should provide some comfort to public officials that the event is being staged in a safe manner, at least from a crime perspective—and especially with respect to sex/human trafficking offenses which is a key aspect of the State’s requirement for the COTA track,” the publication in the journal reads.

Earlier this year, COTA and the track owners lost at least $20 million in state reimbursement funds for missing the deadline to submit a human trafficking prevention plan. State law requires COTA to turn in a plan to prevent human trafficking within 30 days of an event, a deadline they missed in 2018 according to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Office. For the previous five years, COTA had received between $18 and $27 million in reimbursements from the state’s Major Events Reimbursement Programs for the Grand Prix event.

Why look at Austin’s data?

The lead researcher on these findings, Alex Piquero, explained that while F1 has events worldwide, it made the most sense to research the data on the Austin race because relative to many other countries, the U.S. is good at keeping crime data.

Piquero used a tool on the Austin Police website, which is readily accessible to anyone, to track events by crime type and day.

“That’s a really good thing that the Austin Police Department and the City of Austin do for its citizens,” he said.

Piquero clarified that it’s unclear now if the 2018 numbers his team analyzed indicate that crime has decreased from previous years or whether it’s always been lower than many in the public have assumed. But he believes his research will be a stepping stone to clarifying what the pattern of crime has been related to F1 over time.

“We didn’t have a baseline to compare our results with in the city of Austin, but now we do, so someone could do the exact same analysis for this past year’s race in Austin just a few months ago as well as next years race,” Piquero said.

Trafficking and major sporting events

The researchers on the study out Tuesday noted that there is a “long-standing perception” that major public events and in particular sporting events, will increase sex trafficking and related sex crimes. The report suggests that future research should look at the potential differences in crime between car races and other large-scale sporting events.

Leading anti-trafficking groups like the Polaris Project and the International Human Trafficking Institute have said before that no evidence supports the claim that the Super Bowl and other major events increase sex trafficking.

Local advocates feel similarly, said Steven Phenix, the public relations director at the Refuge for DMST, a nonprofit in the Austin-area which has created a long-term community for minors who have been rescued out of sex trafficking.

“The Super Bowl thing is a myth and movies like ‘Taken’ are also a myth,” Phenix said. “And there’s a false hysteria going around that doesn’t help anyone. “

He added that advocates in the Austin area see a “barely noticeable” increase in inbound calls when big-name events come to town.

Sex trafficking, Phenix explained, happens, “365 days a year and not just when Formula One comes to town or when the Super Bowl happens.”

Matt Kammer-Kerwick, Ph.D., a Senior Research Scientist at UT Austin’s IC2 Institute found this new study on FR interesting, “and  highly relevant to Austin, central Texas, and beyond.”

“These results corroborate other research in recent years that has pushed back on earlier concerns about major sporting events being concentrators of human trafficking,” Kammer-Kerwick said. He pointed to recent research done by faculty at the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas at Austin which noted that while “empirical evidence does not suggest that major sporting events cause trafficking for sexual exploitation,” they found that 76% of U.S. print media “helped propagate the myth of spiking sex trafficking during the Super Bowl.”

“Such clarifying research means that more attention can be paid to the true aspects of this terrible societal problem,” Kammer-Kerwick said.

Kammer-Kerwick was part of the team of UT Austin researchers who released their findings in March of 2019, showing that many victims of child trafficking get stuck in a cycle of being repeatedly victimized. This research found that the victims of child sex trafficking spend about 35% of their lives in situations where they are being exploited. Additionally, the research found that of the victims they spoke with who had experienced sex trafficking, 83% had also experienced some other form of exploitation — like wage theft or sexual abuse.

“We believe that approaches to address human trafficking should embrace the fact that this societal problem is actually an everyday occurrence rather than something that is concentrated at special events,” Kammer-Kerwick added.

KXAN’s Alyssa Goard is working on an in-depth report about these findings.