Baltimore hotels would be required to train their staffs to recognize signs of forced prostitution under proposed legislation that also would prohibit rooms from being rented for less than half a day.
City Councilman James B. Kraft said the anti-human trafficking bill is necessary to combat an "international plague" that Baltimore has a duty to address because of its proximity to the heavily traveled Interstate 95 corridor.
Police say they have received some reports of human trafficking in South and Southeast Baltimore. But because the crime is hard to track, law enforcement officials don't know how widespread it might be.
Kraft's proposal could provide another avenue for finding people who force others — often children and immigrants here illegally — to have sex for money or provide slave labor, federal officials say. The majority of council has signed on to the bill.
Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said training hotel staff will mean extra eyes on the lookout for human trafficking victims. His office has prosecuted 60 people across the state on human trafficking charges since 2009, including two in Baltimore.
Rosenstein said Baltimore could be a destination for human traffickers because cities with busy airports and tourist attractions, such as stadiums and casinos, are a draw for the illegal activity.
"Customers are more likely to engage in criminal sexual activities while they're on the road," he said.
Acting Capt. Suzanne Fries, who commands the Baltimore police unit responsible for human trafficking and related investigations, said city officers are working with the federal government and other local agencies to examine cases. Authorities also are in contact with hotel sources who "spot suspicious activity" and use online prostitution sites to look for criminal activity, she said.
"We are seeing cases in the Southeast and Southern District," Fries said in an email. "Some cases are beginning with street prostitution."
City police said six people were charged in connection with human trafficking last year.
In one case prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's office, a former city firefighter was sentenced to 15 years in prison for forcing women to work in a brothel on Madison Avenue. He and a partner falsely advertised work for exotic dancers, and arranged for women and at least one minor to be transported to Baltimore from seven states. They targeted females who were poor and had no place to live, proseuctors said.
Kraft said he is concerned about prostitution in his district, which includes parts of Southeast Baltimore. But he said the driving force behind his proposal is the city's proximity to I-95 and research he's done that shows how rapidly victims are transported from one location to another, including from the West Coast to the East Coast.
"It's something that will help us address a growing problem," Kraft said. "We are in a well-traveled corridor, and I think that's why we have even more of an obligation."
Under the legislation, hotel workers would have to be trained each year on how to identify human trafficking activities and victims, including watching a video approved by the city's police commissioner that describes warning signs. The requirement would apply to hotels with rooms for at least five guests.
Kraft said his bill is based on similar legislation in Prince George's County. Hotels there must train their workers on how to identify human trafficking victims and activities, and are forbidden from renting rooms by the hour, among other requirements.
David Reel, president of the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association, said the group is still evaluating the city proposal. But he said Baltimore officials should carefully consider whether Kraft's bill takes the right approach. For instance, it calls for training all hotel workers, but Reel said some staff may never have any interaction with guests.
Plus, he said, some hotels already provide training to their workers, although he couldn't point to specifics.
"As an industry and an association we certainly don't take human trafficking and prostitution lightly," Reel said. Officials should ask themselves, "'Is it a rampant problem? Is it an isolated problem? Will this ordinance address it?'"
When Prince George's officials first proposed such legislation, Reel said, the group encouraged them to close problem properties rather than impose new requirements on all hotels.
"We think there should be a balance without putting unnecessary and onerous provisions on the lodging industry," Reel said.
Kraft, whose bill has nine co-sponsors, said he is willing to work with the industry to address any concerns. He said doesn't have specific requirements in mind for the training and would defer to law enforcement to guide the development of such programs.
He said he originally wanted to require hotels to charge a 24-hour rate for customers, but adapted the proposal to accommodate truck drivers who sometimes rent rooms for a few hours to rest along their route.
Hotels owners who don't comply would face up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. The legislation would take effect in January 2016, although Kraft said he is considering changing the effective date to July 1.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hasn't taken a position on the bill. Her spokesman Kevin Harris said the administration is continuing to review the proposal.
"This is an issue of importance to the mayor and we will weigh in over the coming days," Harris said.
Aaliyah Muhammad, a member of the state's human trafficking task force, said the group is working to compile data to document the scope of the crime in Baltimore and across Maryland. The task force is trying to build awareness about the crime. She said many people don't realize that in addition to prostitution, victims are sometimes forced to provide slave labor as manicurists, hair salon workers or maids. "Help us identify victims of human trafficking — help us," she said.
Vaughn Harper, a Baltimore-based special agent with the U.S. immigration agency's Homeland Security Investigations unit, said the combination of tourist venues in the Baltimore region and the location of I-95 makes Maryland a "hot spot" for human trafficking. Those involved in the criminal trade have said the rates they can charge in the Mid-Atlantic make it a destination for them and their victims, he said.
"They say it's more lucrative here," Harper said. "They make more money."
Hotel staff may recognize individuals who frequently rent rooms or they may spot a pattern in their check-ins, which may coincide with big events, such as Ravens or Orioles games, Harper said. The victims may eat all their meals inside the room and only have "working clothes" and not casual attire that many people pack for a trip.
Traffickers also may want to pay in cash, he said.
FBI spokeswoman Amy J. Thoreson said awareness of the warning signs could help stop human trafficking, which she said is "extremely hard" to track because victims often don't identify themselves when they encounter law enforcement.
"We need people to be conscious of what they're witnessing, and be willing to call law enforcement if they suspect something," Thoreson said. "Often times, people don't want to cause problems or they think they could be wrong. But let agents, police offices and other law enforcement entities figure that out."
If you spot suspicious activity
Authorities encourage anyone who encounters suspicious activity that could be connected to human trafficking to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at 1-866-347-2423 or visit ice.gov/tips. For more information on human trafficking, go to dhs.gov/blue-campaign.
Forums are scheduled in January, National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
•The Maryland Freedom Conference: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 31 at Towson University's West Village Commons. Register at mdfreedom.eventbrite.com.
•Human Trafficking — All that Glitters Isn't Gold: Noon Jan. 24 at New Psalmist Baptist Church, 6020 Marian Drive, Baltimore.