Police Target More Pimps and Johns as Their Understanding of Sex Trafficking Grows

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How do you tell the difference between a prostitute and a trafficking victim? Or are all prostitutes trafficking victims? 

David Kitts, who heads the KPD Special Crimes Unit, says some women freely choose prostitution. But Kate Trudell, executive director of the Knoxville nonprofit Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, says almost every trafficking victim initially claims she is acting on her own, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Besides “Stockholm syndrome,” women may refuse to turn on a pimp because she gets beat up if he gets busted, Trudell says, “or the other girls will be punished for her transgressions.” And since many of these women have past arrests, they don’t view cops as protectors.

“Is every prostitute a trafficking victim? No, but most are,” says Margie Quinn, the special agent who supervises the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s statewide trafficking unit. “As to how you tell the difference, I haven’t met a woman yet in prostitution that hasn’t been beat up. I haven’t yet met a woman in prostitution that hasn’t been raped…. They aren’t treated well by johns, I can tell you that.”

Trudell says 95 percent of prostitutes don’t want to be selling sex, and even adult prostitutes generally began as child victims of sexual abuse or trafficking. 

“Prostitution and human trafficking are two sides of the same coin,” she says. “The common and long-standing stigma towards prostitutes won’t change overnight, but our goal is to work with institutions at all levels in order to help shift public attitudes that oversimplify a very complicated issue.”

One complication is how to treat women who are “promoted” to managing younger girls for a pimp. These women, often referred to as “bottom bitches,” act as enforcers once they get too old—in their 20s—to be as attractive to johns. “They’re former victims, but they made their own choices,” Trudell says. “How do you deal with them?”

This summer the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that 25-year-old Jodi Robiceaux, who began selling sex at age 16 at the insistence of a pimp “boyfriend” who fed her drug addiction, received a minimum sentence for her role in recruiting underage runaways to the sex trade. 

Seeing prostitutes as victims is a change for police. Starting in January, TBI began providing two hours of training to all Tennessee law enforcement officers about how to recognize and prosecute human trafficking.

“When I’m training, I can actually see them changing their minds—the expressions on their faces the instant they get it,” Quin says. “Once they know, police officers can be fiercely protective of kids and of victims. So I don’t think it’s been hard to change hearts and minds.” 

Statewide, the number of prostitution arrests dropped by more than half between 2010 and 2015, from 2,360 to 1,154. The number of people charged with assisting or promoting prostitution—basically, pimping—more than doubled, from 73 in 2010 to 167 in 2015.

The shift isn’t universal. Unlike underage girls, adult trafficking victims often face prostitution charges. Quin says the TBI consults survivor specialists who frequently recommend it. “Even though they’re cited, it’s really not for punishment reasons, but as leverage to keep them in contact with folks who could offer them services,” Quin says. Nashville diverts these women through a human trafficking court, which operates much like a drug court, aiming to stabilize the offender rather than just punish her.

Based on Knox County Sheriff’s Office data, the number of its prostitution arrests has actually increased slightly in recent years, from 20 in 2012 to 32 in 2015. Generally those have outstripped the number of men the Sheriff’s Office charges with purchasing sex, except for a spike in 2013. 

FBI Knoxville’s Child Exploitation and Safe Streets Task Force led local law enforcement in an October operation that netted five prostitution-related arrests in Knoxville, Cleveland, and Johnson City. Three of those women were referred for victim services, according to an FBI press release. It stated that the operation helped identify pimps as part of an ongoing investigation.

Disagreement remains about filing charges against such women. Kitts says one of the women arrested in the TBI bust was a prostitute working alone. But Trudell sees that woman as victim who acknowledged that her boyfriend told her about using the online classified ad site Backpage to find johns and had “his baby momma” listed there. 

“I’m frustrated that because she wasn’t ready to choose (victim) services, she was punished and criminalized,” Trudell says. “I think we are just now beginning to recognize we don’t fully understand how to address that.”

Quin says it’s time to shift focus to the buyers. “Historically, law enforcement has concentrated on the women involved in prostitution stings,” Quin says. “If that strategy is not working, then perhaps we need to change our strategy.”

In the Knoxville bust, most of those arrested were johns—including two ministers—who responded to fake ads on Backpage. Knoxville Police are targeting johns online, too. In early October, the department’s Internet Crimes Against Children’s Task Force arrested three men after they separately arranged online to have sex with someone they believed to be a 14-year-old girl. KPD’s task force is the lead in the state; all other local task forces are affiliates of it, says spokesman Darrell DeBusk.

Many anti-trafficking groups identify Backpage as the biggest platform for trafficking minors. “The ultimate freak to make you weak!” touts a typical post. The ads involve a lot of emojis and semi-nude photos of women in suggestive positions, most claiming to be in their 20s. Craigslist had a similar adult entertainment category that it retired in 2010 after 17 state attorneys general filed lawsuits charging the company with promoting prostitution. 

In early October the Backpage CEO and two biggest shareholders (who ran the company previously) were arrested on felony pimping charges, when California’s attorney general accused Backpage of being “purposefully and unlawfully designed” to be an online brothel.

Trudell calls it a fleeting victory. “For traffickers there is a lot of money at stake, and it would be naive of us to think they’d just pack up and go quietly into the night,” she says. “Ultimately, they will just find another way.”

Demand is strong, perhaps at least partly because a misdemeanor “purchasing prostitution” charge and $500 fine don’t amount to a big penalty, Trudell says. According to research compiled by Shared Hope, even johns who are arrested tend to get off lightly. Although the most common charge against them is sexual exploitation of a child, 26 percent of those convicted are released with no time served. When time was served, 69 percent of sentences were suspended by an average of 85 percent. Most of the johns arrested in the Knoxville sting in May received pretrial diversion on certain conditions.

The social stigma could be a more significant factor than legal punishment.

“The men in our communities who are paying to have sex with women (or men)—a lot of these men have a lot to lose,” Quin says. “If they think law enforcement is going to get more active on that side, maybe that’s a deterrent. Maybe that’s a way we can reduce demand.”

See Also: Unchained: Inside the Struggle Against Sex Trafficking in Knoxville

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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