Hotel workers educated on signs of human trafficking

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A presentation organized by the Warwick Police Department – in collaboration with many local hotel workers and managers and the FBI, and held at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick – sought to shine light on an often overlooked but unfortunately prevalent issue in society; human trafficking.

Although human trafficking crimes have not been reported on any meaningful basis in Warwick in recent years, community police officer Daniel Maggiacomo – who helped spearhead the conversation – said it was a matter of importance to stay ahead of such issues and remain vigilant.

“How many people think the majority of human trafficking comes from outside the country?” asked presenter and 17-year veteran special agent of the FBI Brooks Broadus to a full room of hotel employees from many of the city’s 16 hotels.

Broadus started off the discussion by emphasizing that human trafficking – while sometimes portrayed solely as instances where people from foreign countries are literally trafficked into the states in order to be put to work as indentured servants or sex slaves – is actually a much broader criminal issue that occurs right here in our own cities and towns every day.

“Believe it or not, it’s mainly domestic that we see,” he said. “It’s our daughters, our sisters, our nieces – and we do see boys and young men as well.”

Broadus relayed the sad fact that trafficking can happen to anybody, and there is no age limit for who can be a victim. He described one situation where the trafficking victim was 9 years old.

“We see it of all ages, all ethnicities, all cultures, all backgrounds – there’s no one set pattern,” he said.

Broadus works on the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Task Force for the Boston FBI field office – one of 56 such offices in the country – and collaborates with the field office in Providence and with the 25 state task force officers that operate out of various Rhode Island police departments. The task force officer for Warwick, Detective Kerri Chatten, was also on hand for the presentation.

Task force officers are given the same authority as FBI agents in cases involving human trafficking in order to create a strong collaborative team with one goal in mind – to help victims of human trafficking and to go after the perpetrators.

“A trafficker is a predator, no different than a serial killer or a child pornographer or anything like that,” described Broadus. “They look for the ones who are weak and vulnerable and take advantage of them for their own benefit.”

Broadus described how there are two main types of traffickers – known colloquially as “pimps” in the culture, or “the game,” as those in the life of trafficking describe the industry. Broadus took heed to make sure that traffickers, same as their victims, could be men or women.

“Gorilla pimps” will seek out vulnerable women and beat them or threaten them into submission and force them into work, usually of a sexual nature. All the while the victim is under their control, the threat of imminent violence persists should they not make enough money, talk to law enforcement or even so much as glance at another known pimp.

So-called “Casanova pimps” will court their victims romantically, often playing along as a significant other in a real relationship. They earn the victim’s trust, show them love, learn about their families and gain the dependence of the victim. They then proceed to use that information as collateral to threaten the victim into folding to their will.

Oftentimes, pimps will get their victims hooked on drugs, such as heroin, and then act as the gatekeeper to the drug as another way to keep them under control. Broadus described and showed examples of “branding” by pimps – where they tattoo a victim or number of victims with the same identifying markings to categorize them as their property.

Throughout the presentation, Broadus ensured that he spoke of those forced into prostitution as victims, and not as criminals.

“A lot of people think prostitutes are doing it because they want to. The majority of them are not,” he said. “Who, as a little girl, thinks ‘I want to be a prostitute when I grow up?’ It’s usually something’s happened in their lives, which makes them vulnerable in a situation where a predator latches onto that and says I’m going to abuse that person.”

Broadus said that this approach is part of a shift in law enforcement ethos regarding prostitution – where in the past prostitutes were simply arrested, and not much else was done in regards to finding the true root criminal who was responsible for the situation to begin with.

“Today, we treat every girl as a victim until proven otherwise,” he said.

What to watch for in hotels

The point of gathering hotel employees in one place to hear the unvarnished portrayal of human trafficking in America was to help give them signs to be aware of should a trafficker try to set up a victim for “in-call” prostitution in a hotel – where the clients, or “johns,” come to a location to have intercourse for a fee.

Employees were told to watch for overtly suspicious behavior – like random people loitering in the lobby for extended periods of time who avoid eye contact and check their phones who may be waiting for word on where to go to seek out a victim’s room for sex.

Other signs could involve a repeat customer booking the same room – usually rooms that are more isolated or nearby to exits or elevators – who is local to the community or lives nearby. The trafficker may also check in with the victim, who may look distressed or out of place or may not even speak English. Often times they don’t carry luggage, which should be a red flag as well.

“Engage them in conversation,” Broadus suggested, “and see if what they’re saying makes sense with what you do and see on a daily basis.”

Other signs include a guest asking for a large number of room keys, booking multiple rooms multiple times a year, putting up “do not disturb” signs for multiple days at a time, suspicious people loitering in hallways who appear to be standing watch or indications of violent or highly sexual activity within a room (such as a large number of used condoms in the trash or requests for a high number of fresh towels or wash cloths).

Broadus said that what is most difficult about rooting out traffickers is how they don’t look like stereotypical pimps – with loud, colorful clothes or big medallions and hats as portrayed in media – and how victims turned to prostitutes don’t look like stereotypical call girls from movies either.

“They look and dress just like anybody else,” he said.

However those traffickers can be, in many cases, extremely dangerous criminals, and Broadus urged all hotel staff to never try to confront them directly.

“The very first thing I tell everybody is there’s never a reason to put yourself in harm’s way,” he said. “Some of these pimps are really, really bad people. We’ve come across some pimps with 27, 37 pages of criminal history – guns, dope, murder, attempted murder, assault of police officers – some of these guys are really bad. So don’t address them.”

Also making the job more difficult is the state of technology. The Internet has made it easier than ever for traffickers to target victims, advertise their “services,” and set up multiple layers of security between a john requesting a service and that service being carried out.

“These pimps, they are as conscious of law enforcement surveillance as we are of surveilling them,” Broadus said.

Even if a victim is found, it is not a guarantee that they will be willing to assist law enforcement in the capture of their trafficker. Broadus said that one nationwide study found it takes between 7-10 contacts with law enforcement before a trafficking victim will identify as even being a victim.

“The girls are scared. It’s not like they’re there doing it because they want to. It’s because they’re in more fear of their pimp than they are of us in law enforcement,” he said. “They know that the penalty for prostitution or sex for a fee is slim to very little. So they would rather take the ride to jail and go through that than to tell a law enforcement officer that they’re being trafficked. Because they’re guaranteed, more than likely, to get hurt by the pimp if they tell us that their pimp is making them do it.”

Broadus told some horror stories from his own experience in the field, including an 18-year-old who flew from Pennsylvania to Boston to pursue a modeling job she saw posted online, only to be kidnapped, sexually assaulted and forced into prostitution under the threat of murder by a trafficker. She was rescued by the FBI after 10 days in servitude. All of her documents – passport, social security card, license – were all stolen.

“We’ve seen one girl in a room with 50 condoms,” Broadus said about another incident. “She had been there for two days.”

Hotel staff who feel as though something isn’t right, or that somebody might be in danger should always first alert their managers, who can then alert local law enforcement, who can then get in touch with the proper detective or the FBI directly, Broadus said. The local FBI field office number is 857-386-2000.

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