Montgomery County detectives investigating prostitution cases are keeping an eye out for ledgers, foreign accents and sleeping quarters in brothels -- some of the telltale signs of human trafficking.
Likewise, officers responding to domestic violence or runaway calls are asking pointed questions in an effort to identify whether some of the people they encounter may be enslaved.
In the past, Montgomery officers generally wouldn't ask people whether they had access to their passport, whether they lived with their employer or whether they owed money to their boss, police chief J. Thomas Manger said.
"Now officers ask the right questions to determine if there's a trafficking element to the case," Manger said, noting that every officer on his force has received training on the subject, a relatively new but growing concern among law enforcement officials.
The State Department estimates that between 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders each year, many into the United States. Experts in the subject say thousands of trafficking victims -- people who are coerced into prostitution or other unreasonable forms of labor they can't easily escape from -- go undetected in the United States, especially in areas with large immigrant communities.
"I don't think we've seen the tip of the iceberg," said state Del. Joanne S. Parrott (R-Harford), the author of a bill that is being studied by the House Judiciary Committee and will probably be reintroduced next session. "It's such a new topic. Part of this is getting the word out. Some of these things may be happening in lovely homes in suburbia. It could be anybody's neighborhood."
Parrott and other lawmakers are trying to pass legislation to fight what they describe as an insidious -- if largely invisible -- phenomenon. Although human trafficking and slavery are federal crimes, state legislators say adding them to Maryland's penal code would provide local law enforcement officials with a valuable tool to bring traffickers to justice, Parrott said.
Parrott's bill mirrors the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which, among other things, created a special visa category for such victims. Twelve other states have since passed legislation to fight human trafficking, said Bradley Myles, national program coordinator for Polaris Project, a nonprofit group that monitors the practice.
The Department of Justice prosecuted 29 human trafficking cases in fiscal 2004, roughly as many as it had prosecuted during the previous three years. Four of those cases have involved Montgomery County defendants.
Most of the victims in the local cases were brought to the country to work as domestic servants. One involved a Ghanaian woman from Takoma Park who was sentenced to five years in prison last year after a jury determined that she illegally forced a nanny to work seven days a week without pay.
Elizabeth Keyes, a lawyer who specializes in domestic workers and trafficked people at CASA of Maryland, a nonprofit advocacy group in Silver Spring, said she is investigating 11 cases that appear to involve human trafficking.
"The cases just walk through our door," Keyes said. "They're from a range of places: Africa, South Asia, South America. All are women. The vast majority are young."
But advocates for trafficking victims say the county needs to focus more effort and resources on identifying victims and prosecuting traffickers.
"The good Samaritans in these cases are very important," said Jeredine Williams, executive director of Migrant and Refugee Cultural Support Inc., a Silver Spring group that recently announced a campaign called Voice of the Victim to combat trafficking in the county.