Politics & Government

NC's latest strategy to fight human trafficking? The liquor store.

As part of a sharpened campaign to combat human trafficking, North Carolina law enforcement officers and social service providers have urged people to keep their eyes and ears open for signs.

One new sign they hope people will pay attention to will be inside liquor stores across the state.

"No one should be forced, deceived, or pressured into work or sex acts," reads a sign posted Wednesday at the ABC Store in Cameron Village in Raleigh.

The sign directs readers to a confidential hotline number that anyone can call or text to report suspicious activity or to seek help.

“Human trafficking is a crime that lives in the shadows and for us to beat it we really have to shine a bright light on it,” Attorney General Josh Stein said at a news conference inside the liquor store. "Awareness is really how we are going to beat human trafficking."

In 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received more than 900 calls from North Carolina. There were 258 human trafficking cases brought by law enforcement and more than 1,200 victims and survivors identified last year in this state, according to Stein.

The signs in the liquor stores and other establishments licensed by the ABC will serve two purposes, Stein said.

"These signs will let victims know there is help on the other end of a phone call and help educate the public so we can look for the telltale signs of trafficking," he said.

Libby Magee Coles, chair of the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission, Robert Schurmeier, director of the State Bureau of Investigation, and others joined Stein at the news conference to talk about why liquor stores were chosen for the signs and other projects about to be launched here.

A law adopted in 2017 by the North Carolina General Assembly requires the signs to be placed in liquor stores. Other states such as California, Texas and Oregon have taken similar actions targeting liquor stores because people at risk for coercion into the sex industry might be more likely to be in a liquor store than somewhere like a post office or some other public space.

People promoting prostitution also are likely to go to liquor stores and perhaps get the message that North Carolina law enforcement officers and other organizations are taking a strong stance against such activity.

Signs also will be posted at truck stops, rest areas, welcome centers, job centers and emergency rooms across the state.

Stein said 1.8 million children are trafficked worldwide, and in the United States an estimated 100,000 children are trafficked for sex.

'We will take you to jail'

Schurmeier, the SBI director, said his agency will become more aggressive on the issue. He plans to announce in the coming weeks a key hire whose focus will be on trafficking.

"I'll commit to you and the public here that we are going to change our strategy and become more aggressive with the people who will traffic human beings in North Carolina," Schurmeier said. "Let me send a clear message to the people who traffic in human beings. You continue to do it in the state of North Carolina, you will meet our agents. We will take you to jail."

He also had a message for the victims of trafficking: "We are there for you. The SBI will be there."

North Carolina might see an uptick in cases reported, the director said, because of the sharpened focus and rising public awareness.

Last week, Apex police called on people in the western Wake County town to be on the lookout for signs including: malnourishment, physical injury or abuse, confinement, physical restraint, avoidance of eye contact and social isolation, reliance on someone else to do their talking for them, a lack of ID or passport, working excessively long or unusual hours and an inability to provide answers about where home is or what town or city they're in.

On March 9, Apex police raided a local hotel as part of a joint operation with the Salvation Army Project F.I.G.H.T., or Freeing Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking. A man was arrested for promoting prostitution and four women were cited for soliciting prostitution.

To contact the hotline, dial 888-373-7888 or text 233733.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1