State and local officials target people trying to buy sex in Tennessee

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SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — State and local law enforcement say they are cracking down on people trying to buy sex, and their efforts are paying off.

Tennessee was recently ranked the top state for combating human trafficking by Shared Hope International, which looked at every state’s law enforcement approaches, legislation and survivor services. Mississippi came in at number 10. Arkansas ranked 22nd.

Local efforts started ramping up in 2017 when nearly four dozen people were booked into 201 Poplar after an undercover human-trafficking operation at a motel in Cordova.

State agents posted four ads on Backpage.com, and say 475 men responded. A few dozen showed up, including eight men wanting to pay for sex with 14-year-old girls.

The 2017 operation is just one of many the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation continues to conduct.

“We have actually been in Tipton County in 2019. We have been in Middle Tennessee a few times the past few months,” said Jeremy Lofquest, assistant special agent in charge.

The goals are to nab those trying to purchase sex, especially from children, target the traffickers and organizations they are working with, and then rescue and recover the victims and get them to the services they need, he said.

“What was very alarming from the Operation Someone Like Me, is people in our community were looking to buy sex with a 14-year-old. That’s where I want to focus my prosecution efforts,” said Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich.

Weirich strongly believes those prosecution efforts will make a difference. She said sex trafficking is a demand-driven crime, so by going after the buyers, the demand will drop, and so will the supply, eventually.

“There’s all kinds of best practices around the country to do. What can send the message to the buyers that we are watching you and will bring you to justice and hold you accountable,” she said.

It’s not the first time Weirich and her team have looked at other cities for proactive ways to combat prostitution and trafficking. In 2014, she and the Memphis Police Department took an idea from Nashville about a jail diversion program.

It’s called Lives Worth Saving. Anyone arrested with prostitution can get the charge expunged by taking a four-hour class that offers support services like health screenings, rehabilitation and shelter.

“We have to couple that with actually creating stiffer penalties for who actually drives the demand,” said Rachel Haaga.

Haaga’s non-profit, Restore Corps, helps with Lives Worth Saving. She said she’s seen many success stories, but also remains adamant about one thing:

“More people are being exploited because of the demand. If we can target the demand and decrease the demand, because buyers know they are going to be arrested and face penalties that they and their families will have to suffer through, then we actually can begin the conversation and change the problem,” she said.

WREG uncovered data from the DA’s office that shows how many cases they’ve handled for patronizing prostitution, one of the charges for trying to buy sex.

The numbers show more and more cases each year with a huge spike in 2017.

We compared the numbers to the prostitution cases they’ve handled each year, and noticed the cases for both charges are starting to level out.

We asked MPD for an interview about their efforts, since they made a majority of the arrests, but we never heard back.

“We don’t have the cases of people walking the streets like they used to do,” said Weirich.

She said more transactions now being made on the web, like in 2017’s undercover operation in Cordova. Those four listings that agents posted online generated hundreds of responses from people in the community.

“And that buyer is what drives the demand. The people being exploited for that desire,” said Haaga.

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