On Central Avenue in Knoxville, the business of prostitution is a commonplace, and largely ignored, crime, both by citizens and, until recently, police.
Central Avenue and its surrounding area is located right off of I-75 and is home to over 10 hotels. David Bennett, a hotel manager in the area, said this is the ideal spot for prostitution to happen.
“When you get areas like this that’s kind of a gray area of town, that is very heavily populated with hotels, it’s just a breeding ground for it,” Bennett said. “People want to say that prostitution really doesn’t exist. I see it day in and day out.”
Like Bennett, the Knoxville Police Department has seen and acknowledged that this is an area where prostitution is thriving.
“Prostitution is a pretty big problem in Knoxville in certain areas,” Knoxville Police Department Sergeant Sam Henard said. “Central Avenue, that’s where most of our street prostitutes work on a pretty regular basis.”
Nearly every hotel in the Central Avenue area admits to having to deal with prostitution, but they also all have policies for spotting and dealing with it when they see it. However, rules and a watchful eye can only do so much, and prostitution is still happening right under the noses of hotels.
“We don’t condone it, but it happens. You’re stuck. There’s very little you can really do about it. Now, the cops do what they do. That’s their job,” said Richard Mongeau, a front desk clerk at the Red Roof Inn on Central Avenue. “You’re not going to sit and stand here at the gate and monitor every person that comes into your driveway to see if they have legitimate business.”
Prostitution, as Knoxville knows it, may never end, but there are some that are trying to help those who cannot help themselves. For instance, a local church is creating programs to help those stuck in drug use and prostitution.
“We’re nearing a special event that we’ve been working on for almost a year. It’s called the Fresh Start Festival,” Pastor Stephen Doyal of Bookwalter United Methodist Church said. “There’s going to be all kinds of organizations here to help people find a job … We’re hoping that proves to be a real outreach for some of these folks that are maybe on the edge and struggling.”
Police as well have been working to minimize prostitution on Central Avenue. On Sep. 30, a reverse prostitution sting was conducted by KPD that ended in the arrest of seven, mostly married, men. Melinda Tackett*, the undercover officer who played the part of a prostitute, has seen the never ending battle against prostitution and its violent outcomes firsthand.
“It can be scary. I hate to say that, but it can be a very dangerous and scary situation. But if I can curb violent crimes from happening to people — whether that is to the prostitute herself or to the people she’s servicing, I guess, or the people that are picking her up — then for me, that sounds like a job well done,” Tackett said. “It’s one less person that has to go through a traumatic event.”
Patronizing sex in Tennessee is only a class B misdemeanor that, at the most, can hand down a maximum of 6 months in jail and fines of no more than $500. Henard, who has worked for KPD since 2005, said, “Honestly, I’ve never seen someone go to jail for a charge like that.”
While the police are more active in the area now, according to many hotel employees, it has not always been this way.
“We’ve never had a quick response,” said Lori Burke, a hotel manager at Sleep Inn on Central Avenue. “We had somebody who had presumably overdosed, and it took them (police officers) at least thirty minutes to get here. And he was in the bed with a needle in his arm, and we couldn’t get him to wake up and get him to respond or anything.”
Outside of prostitution though, the hotels don’t feel like KPD is really helping them monitor their businesses when it comes to crimes and emergencies in the hotels.
“Even outside of just prostitution, or whatever it may be, there’s circumstances where we’ll call the cops fifteen times for an emergency – takes them two hours to get here,” Bennett said. “So, when you asked me a second ago, ‘What do we really do about it?’ the honest answer is what can I do about it?”
While many in the area believe that police presence has grown, there is another obstacle that is stopping hotel managers from calling the now present police.
“The biggest issue to it is the owners of the properties,” Daniel Smith*, an area hotel employee, said. “There’s a lot of people we know what they’re doing and when they’re doing it, and as long as they’re not causing too many waves and they’re not very transparent about it, we let it run under the radar because he (the property owner) wants that money more than anything.
“That’s all it is. It’s the money.”
Unfortunately, for many involved, prostitution often does not end after one night for either the prostitute or the buyer. Instead, it can be a gateway into other crimes.
“I have seen, in the past, actually men that were never on drugs — they never did anything besides something like that (soliciting prostitution) — fall down that hill, if you’ll think of it like that, and then start doing the drugs that the females are doing as well,” Henard said.
Although they are often considered the criminals in the situation, the people who are often most hurt by the crime are the women who are prostituting. Many are victims of violent crime, forced drug use and rape.
“It’s a twisted, dark world,” Bennett said. “And I hate it because, I mean, you see some of these girls, and you have to wonder what really brought them to that walk of life.”
* Names have been changed for sources’ safety.