EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WKBT) - A nonprofit group based in the Chippewa Valley is training hotel workers to spot the signs of human trafficking as part of a pilot program poised to go statewide.
Human trafficking often takes the form of victims being sexually exploited and taken from one area to another.
Experts say human trafficking is bound to show up in cities just off major highways, such as La Crosse and Eau Claire.
The nonprofit organization Fierce Freedom is working with the Eau Claire Police Department and 16 hotels in the city to train hotel staff members how to notice potential signs of trafficking.
"It's literally behind closed doors,” Lt. Ryan Dahlgren of the Eau Claire Police Department said.
Human trafficking isn't an obvious crime.
"When we've got people going from La Crosse to Eau Claire to Wausau, how do you catch it?" said Jodie Emerson, Fierce Freedom’s director of community relations and public policy.
Dahlgren said his officers patrol hotels and motels on a regular basis.
"You rely on the presence, but also just as importantly, you rely on the information coming from hotel staff, because they're really the eyes and ears of what's going on,” Dahlgren said.
"In talking to (human trafficking) victims, I haven't talked to one victim who hasn't at some point in their exploitation been in a hotel,” Emerson said.
That's why she said hotels are key in stopping human trafficking.
“You've got to stay a step ahead of criminals,” Emerson said. "Almost all workers have seen something they thought was questionable, but didn't know what to do about it."
The group is holding training sessions to teach hotel staff how to spot the signs of modern slavery.
"We have 112 rooms here,” said Wade Schenck, human resources manager at The Lismore Hotel, where Tuesday’s training session took place. “One room is too many rooms that something (wrong could be) happening."
Emerson said human trafficking signs include someone in the lobby or hallway watching a room closely and demeaning, aggressive behavior.
"Human trafficking victims are very unlikely to contact police or social services for help, so this really needs to be a community-based effort,” she said.
The training encourages workers to call police if they notice any potential signs.
"That's what we're there for,” Dahlgren said.
"It's a crime happening under our noses,” Emerson said. “Until everyone's aware of it and saying something about it, we're never going to make a dent in it."
Emerson said since the group began training sessions this spring, there have already been more calls in to police about suspicious situations.
The organization is also starting a rating system of hotels, based on their efforts to combat human trafficking, which will launch in June.
Fierce Freedom is planning to train hotel staff in Washington County in Wisconsin next and will be in the Coulee Region working with the La Crosse Task Force to Eradicate Modern Slavery in August.
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