Talk about ruining the mood.
With the recent revamping of Memphis' Organized Crime Unit (OCU), prostitution is being targeted by the Memphis Police Department (MPD). To date, the MPD has made 1,145 prostitution arrests this year compared with 993 arrests during 2005 and 777 during 2004.
"There's a lot of avenues of vice out there to investigate," said Lieutenant Anthony Berryhill with OCU, "but the focus will be trying to put more emphasis on cracking down on the prostitutes out on the street."
The recent restructuring of OCU allots more resources to fighting street-level prostitution as well as all other forms of vice. The unit, which handles cases involving illegal gambling, drugs, and "knock-offs," or counterfeit products, on the black market, was once divided into separate teams, each focusing on a specific crime.
Now the unit has three response teams that handle all vice complaints, meaning officers are able to crossover in areas that were once highly specialized. The changes bring the OCU up to speed with the MPD's Blue Crush crime-abatement strategy, which requires officers to work closely with one another in targeting hotspots.
"You've got more eyes and ears at every level," said Major Carolyn Jackson, director of the OCU. "We've got more resources out there focusing on everything."
One focus will be prostitution hotspots, which have gotten harder to track as rent-by-the-hour hotels gain popularity among hookers.
"You used to see a bombardment of women on the streets, but now [they stay inside hotels]," said Berryhill. "They'll hang out inside the hotel corridors, and then the guys that frequent [prostitutes] know they can blow their horns and a girl will come out. That keeps the girls out of sight when uniform patrol passes."
OCU officers hope a heightened focus on prostitution will lead to other vice arrests.
"A lot of prostitutes also sell drugs, and most are probably using drugs. That will tie us back into a drug organization," said Berryhill.
The OCU is also seeing an increase in prostitutes peddling stolen cargo from freight trucks.
"Truckers will sometimes barter their freight in return for favors from the girls," said Jackson. Stolen interstate cargo falls under the OCU umbrella as well.
The unit will also be targeting prostitution in strip clubs. Two weeks ago, OCU officers appeared before the Memphis Alcohol Commission to testify to 35 incidents of prostitution and pornographic acts at Brooks Road's Black Tail Shake Joint in the last six months. The beer board issued owner Charles "Jerry" Westlund a $26,000 fine, the largest fine ever given to a strip club for a violation.
One of the biggest problems OCU has with prostitution is repeat offenders. "You can go out and make X number of [prostitution] arrests per night, and within the next day or so, some of the same prostitutes will be back out," said Berryhill. The department is currently building a better relationship with the attorney general's office in an effort to get stiffer penalties for prostitution offenders.