Investigating human trafficking is no simple feat, but the Howard County Police Department is now turning the recovered criminal funds against its perpetrators to assist the victims and enhance law enforcement efforts to minimize the illegal activity in the county.
Created by the county council early last year, the Human Trafficking Task Force recommended creating the fund, which was set in stone by County Executive Allan Kittleman on Aug. 28. While half of all assets seized through the arrest of human trafficking criminals will be given to a nonprofit agency for direct support services to victims, the other half will assist police investigations, including additional surveillance equipment, staff training and overtime salary expenses for the officers involved.
"The money and proceeds [human traffickers] have taken from others to build their criminal enterprise, we'll use that to provide services for victims, to provide resources for the investigators who are handling that as well as some of the other services, [like] required counseling for victims or drug rehabilitation or temporary housing or transportation," Police Chief Gary Gardner said. "That typically would be handled along the same framework that we have with our drug forfeiture account."
Gardner said the department must submit a request to the county's Chief Administrative Office to utilize the fund, as well as a proposal, discussing how the assets forfeiture money will be used. After review by Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins, the fund will then be dispersed.
"I think it's a great idea," Gardner said. "I think the drug assets forfeiture program has proven to be a great asset to law enforcement in providing the resources necessary to combat the drug traffickers. We'll do much the same for the human traffickers."
Cpl. Josh Mouton, a vice detective, said his investigations revolve around both human trafficking and prostitution; the former of which he said "is not a choice." Mouton said he has arrested a fair share of prostitutes in the county who identify as prostitutes, keeping transactions to themselves.
"The ones I know said they've never had a pimp or trafficker," Mouton said. "[Human trafficking] is pretty much somebody being in charge and, through force, fraud or coercion, trafficking another individual, where they have sex for money and for somebody else to get that benefit."
Mouton said he's noticed the issue in Howard County over the past few years, receiving tips and anonymous phone calls from hotels and motels about possible situations. According to department data, Mouton said his unit has recently been working on eight human trafficking cases, which have resulted in three arrests, not including prostitution-only cases.
"There's Asian massage parlors and then the domestic sex trafficking in motels, hotels and even apartment complexes," he said. "The traffickers themselves don't typically care about jurisdiction lines. They're hard to catch up with sometimes. They'll stay at a hotel or motel for two or three days and then take off to another spot to evade law enforcement."
There are always indicators that officers, like Mouton, are trained to notice. One possible scenario, Mouton explained, is when officers come across a man and a woman, claiming to be in a relationship.
"You have to look for different things that they say or do," Mouton said. "Maybe they don't have their identification or they have different motel keys. Indicators are a big part of it. Once you get a few indicators, you can really dig in and find other things you need."
Investigations also take detectives to the Internet, such as the classified advertising website, BackPage. Cpt. Dan Coon, commander of the department's Criminal Investigations Bureau, said technology goes hand-in-hand with the "more complex" human trafficking investigations.
"That could involve computer systems or laptops that we would be utilizing to be able to access some of these sites covertly so they don't know we're the police," Coon said. "We also have ads through BackPage or other venues now that are moving indoors into the hotels and motels, making it a lot more hidden in many cases. It takes a little more investigation and resources to be able to identify that activity."
But, Mouton added, their work doesn't end with the criminal's identity. The difficulty only continues when detectives try to help the victims who, mostly, will not identify themselves.
"They're either in love or they're involved with drugs or they're even scared, so it's really hard to get a victim to trust the police and know we're there to help when they've been conditioned otherwise," Mouton said. "There are a lot of nonprofit groups now that specialize in human trafficking and others that deal with drug issues, domestic violence; all of which are commonly intertwined in a human trafficking case."
Howard County Times: Top stories Newsletter
Daily highlights from Howard County's number one source for local news.
Although Mouton is the only current detective working human trafficking cases, the executive order also allows for a second full-time undercover police officer to join the team.
"Initially, it was kind of on the job a few years ago and people weren't as aware of the issue," Mouton said. "Now, the awareness has really gotten out there certainly for law enforcement, so training is going up as well."
After sitting down with Mouton and learning of incidents in the county, Kittleman said it was hard to listen to how innocent people are tricked into human trafficking.
"[Mouton] explained it to me and, as a father of two daughters, it really shocks you," Kittleman said. "There's nobody here [the victims] know and they probably don't speak the language that well. They're stuck. When you hear about stuff like that, you say to yourself, 'We need to deal with that.'"
As the department nears its hiring of a second officer, Gardner said human trafficking investigations are one step closer to helping those in need.