By Josephine Birdsell
Jennifer Knight, acting deputy chief for the Columbus Division of Police, spoke about officer enforcement and reaction to prostitution on Sullivant Avenue at the Hilltop Neighborhood Safety Committee meeting on Oct. 28.
Knight developed Police And Community Together (PACT), a subdivision of the police force dedicated to combating human trafficking and prostitution. PACT is a reform of the department’s vice unit, which disbanded in March following internal and FBI investigations.
Investigations followed many issues in the vice unit, including the improper arrest of Stormy Daniels, the fatal shooting of Dana Castleberry and accusations that a vice squad officer forced two women to have sex with him under threat of arrest.
Thomas Quinlan, chief of police, tasked Knight with developing PACT in hopes of solving the problems in the vice unit.
The vice unit looked at the issue of prostitution wrong, Knight said. It viewed women as criminals rather than as victims or as human beings.
“Anybody who thinks that prostitution is a choice is wrong,” she said.
According to Columbus police, most of the women prostituting on Sullivant Avenue have been trafficked by another individual. The department arrests human trafficking victims as young as 14 years old.
The police department owes women and community members a better unit, Knight said.
PACT is working to build relationships with prostitutes and human trafficking victims. After women are arrested, they are taken to the Salvation Army, where they are offered addiction services, a hot meal and are allowed to speak privately with counselors before they are taken to jail.
Building trust with women has already been beneficial to the police department, Knight says.
PACT has been active for two months. Since then, women have given the department information on two cold case homicides, which may allow officers to solve the cases.
Women have also helped the department identify a trafficker who reportedly controlled eight women.
Unlike arrests made in the vice unit, all arrests through PACT are made by uniformed officers. All operations through PACT are also overseen by a sergeant to ensure that proper procedures are followed.
Officers are assigned to PACT on a volunteer basis. They undergo two days of intense training before serving on the unit for between 60 and 120 days.
“We realized that our officers were very frustrated,” Knight said. “They were very frustrated because they felt like they weren’t making a difference.”
New measures limiting the time officers spend on PACT serve to keep officers from feeling overworked and frustrated.
The challenge in reforming the vice unit is to reframe how officers and community members view prostitution, Knight said.
“I challenge everyone to spend a little time volunteering and going around these women because you need to see them as human beings,” she said.