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Columbus Police's Softer Approach To Prostitution Enforcement Hinges On More Arrests

Acting Deputy Columbus Police Chief Jennifer Knight oversees the PACT team, which replaced the controversial Vice Unit.
Adora Namigadde
Acting Deputy Columbus Police Chief Jennifer Knight oversees the PACT team, which replaced the controversial Vice Unit.

Columbus Police's Vice Unit made a lot of mistakes during its heyday, says Acting Deputy Chief Jennifer Knight.

Most of its officers were long-timers with seniority, Knight says, and several high-profile incidents occurred under the unit’s watch. Among them were the 2018 killing of Donna Castleberry and arrest of Stormy Daniels, which together prompted the department to suspend and ultimately disband the unit.

Among other changes, Knight says the unit's replacement is striving to treat women in prostitution more humanely.

“I want them to associate the officer’s uniform with someone who cares what happens to them,” Knight says. “And that is a game changer.”

It’s been a few months since the Columbus Division of Police launched their new Police and Community Together team, or PACT. It takes over some of the duties of the disbanded Vice Unit, which remains under FBI investigation.

PACT,however, looks to take a more personal and progressive approach to enforcing prostitution laws. Their strategy is fueled by increasing arrests and community partnerships.

“One of the things we do in the secure staging area, after we search them and identify them, is we un-handcuff them and pair them with a counselor to talk to them about services,” Knight says. She adds that officers then give the women a sack lunch provided by the Salvation Army.

According to records provided by Columbus Police, PACT made 258 arrests between its launch last September and December 2019. That’s nearly equal to arrests by the Vice Unit during the same three-month stretch in 2017. But Knight says they expect to arrest even more women as their neighborhood efforts ramp up.

“Breaking that cycle requires that these women, even though we see them as victims, we remove them from the street and remove them from their traffickers,” Knight says. “At least giving ourselves a window of opportunity to allow them to detox.”

Esther Flores runs 1 Divine Line 2 Health in the Hilltop, and says she's concerned about the strategy being used by PACT to combat prostitution.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Esther Flores runs 1 Divine Line 2 Health in the Hilltop, and says she's concerned about the strategy being used by PACT to combat prostitution.

Court Diversions

One program known for helping women out of human trafficking is CATCH Court, a diversion court started by Franklin County 10 years ago.

“Over 90% of the... women and men that are selling themselves on the street, or in a hotel or on something like back page, over 90% of those individuals are being trafficked by somebody else,” Knight says.

The months-long suspension of the Vice Unit had a ripple effect on CATCH Court. Coordinator Shauna Harrison says that without arrests for soliciting prostitution, their referrals came to a halt.

Harrison says the court continued offering its CATCH 101 class – a three-day seminar on exiting prostitution – but sometimes the course would be empty.

“October, nobody,” Harrison says, scrolling through documents on her desktop computer. “We’re only offering it every other month at this point. We offered it monthly when there were arrests.”

She’s confident referral numbers will increase as PACT arrests more women.

“December, we had seven,” Harrison says. “So, seven compared to zero. We did August last year, so we actually had four people in August.”

The increase in arrests made be welcome news for Harrison and police, but it’s concerning to Esther Flores. She runs 1 Divine Line 2 Health, which operates a part-time drop-in center for sex workers in the Hilltop.

“I’m a firm believer that incarceration is not rehabilitation,” Flores says. “That is a mentality most police officers believe.”

Flores says she doesn’t know if any women who visit her offices have encounters with PACT officers, so she has not heard personal stories about the unit.

But Flores wishes PACT would work more with grassroots organizations like hers, saying that large organizations aren’t typically open when women need them the most. 

“They prefer working during the day. Well, I don’t work that much during the day,” Flores says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m involved in meetings. But I’m out there at 8 p.m., 9 p.m., 10 p.m. when they’re out there.”

For Knight, arrests are crucial. She says of the 258 arrests made since launch, PACT has arrested 15 women twice and one offender four times. No buyers, known as johns, have been arrested multiple times by the unit, although police say they want to increase enforcement of those who fuel the demand for prostitution.

Of the 258 arrests, 185 were misdemeanor arrests "on view" – meaning PACT officers saw people engage in solicitation while they were out patrolling.

“One of the angles we’ve been missing is demand reduction,” Knight says about the Vice Unit. “Demand, it’s a supply and demand. It also involves human traffickers.”

Another change being made by PACT is having police host community meetings after several arrests in a neighborhood. Knight says some of those meetings included residents pushing back against the softer approach by police, most recently at an event in the Hilltop last month.

“Some of the feedback was, ‘Why are you feeding people you’re taking to jail? These people are out here committing a crime and you’re giving them a lunch,” Knight says. “And I need them to understand this is literally the nicest thing anyone has done for them in months. These women haven’t eaten in days, they haven’t slept in days, they’re exhausted, they’re hungry, they’re addicted.”

PACT's next community meeting is scheduled for March, but police haven’t released details because they haven’t carried out those arrests.

If you have information to share about the Vice Unit or PACT, contact WOSU at adora@wosu.org.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.