Imagine you work the front desk at a San Francisco hotel. One evening, a few days before the Super Bowl, a man checks in, accompanied by a young child with no luggage. The child is very quiet; the man pays in cash. It could be innocent enough — a father traveling with his tired daughter — but after being trained to recognize the subtleties of human trafficking, you might not hesitate to call the cops.
Last week, reps from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the California Attorney General's Office, and District Attorneys from nine Bay Area counties kicked off San Francisco's "human trafficking awareness" campaign. (And this week, in the Tenderloin, the city will debut No Traffic Ahead, a multi-agency outreach and advertising initiative to spotlight human trafficking in our own backyards.) Officials were quick to note the campaign coincides with Human Trafficking Awareness Month and is not related to the Super Bowl.
"[Trafficking] occurs every day, everywhere," says Supervisor Katy Tang, who has written several laws to restrict prostitution in the city's massage parlors.
But conventional wisdom says trafficking goes into overdrive during big events like the Super Bowl. Last year, law enforcement in Arizona — where Super Bowl 49 was held in Glendale — arrested 360 suspected johns and 68 alleged traffickers. In what's become a predictable pageant, host cities vow to crack down on traffickers and report successful sting operations, but rarely provide comparative data to help observers put those arrests in context.
"I haven't seen solid facts from any of the groups, just the potential that [trafficking] can happen," says Kevin Carroll, executive director of the Hotel Council of San Francisco, a trade group that represents more than 250 hotels in the city.
In October, San Francisco hospitality organizations — including the Hotel Council — met with law enforcement and the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee for training in how to identify human trafficking. The idea is that everyone on staff, from the kitchen to the management, needs to remain vigilant about noticing "questionable behavior."
The takeaway, Carroll says, is a slogan familiar to anyone in post-9/11 America: If you see something, say something.
But according to the training, housekeepers and room service attendants in the city's more than 34,000 hotel rooms should deem behavior that runs the gamut from the aforementioned children without luggage to adults who "appear to be under someone else's control" as "suspicious."
Given such slippery criteria, is the city worried about the potential for unduly panicked hotel staff?
"It's not like we're saying, 'If this person has a beard, then they're a danger.' We aren't giving people egregious tips," Tang says, adding that rescuing a trafficked victim outweighs the risk of offending a law-abiding guest.
She draws a parallel to the Golden Gate Bridge, where sightseers without a camera, backpack, or jogging apparel could be questioned by authorities. ("There's the risk of suicide," she explains.)
A word of advice if you're planning a sexy hotel tryst on Super Bowl weekend: Leave the handcuffs at home.