NBJ Reports: Former Gov. Bill Haslam recalls what it was like watching a sex trafficking sting happen in the hotel room next door
It was a full day of work for Gov. Bill Haslam, including visits with employees of the Department of Human Services and a local school.
And then, after dinner, Haslam and his wife, Crissy, walked into a Memphis hotel to witness a sex trafficking sting operation.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation invited the Haslams to sit in a secure room and observe video and audio feeds of what was happening in the adjacent room. There, undercover agents were conducting an operation aimed at combatting human trafficking.
“Every now and then you find yourself in these situations where you say, ‘I never thought I would be here in a hotel room watching video feed of a
sting go down,'” Haslam said in an interview. “It all felt very real-life. You see these men walking down a hotel corridor and he’s definitely not thinking, ‘Here’s what is getting ready to come down on me.'”
Haslam is among 30 people the Business Journal interviewed in the past two years for a special report on the impact human trafficking is having on the region and its business community. Our complete investigation will be published later this week.
Under state law, sex trafficking happens one of two ways: when the victim is under 18 years old, or when a trafficker — the person orchestrating or
coordinating the illicit activity — uses coercion or deception to compel someone to have sex. In both cases, the victim performs what the law calls “sexually explicit conduct” in exchange for something of value, such as money or drugs or shelter or food.
“My main thought was how prevalent the problem is,” Haslam said of his real-time reaction to the sting. “You literally had the whole gamut the night we were there. White-collar people — just the whole spectrum.”
The sting happened in January 2017. Two years later, just before the end of his second and final term in office, Haslam granted clemency to trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown (read more on her high-profile case here). Haslam said he weighed a number of factors in making his decision, and did recall the sting, which he said reinforced that “no teenage girl chooses that life.”
“Shutting down human trafficking should be a priority for all of us,” Haslam said. “Shutting it down is very difficult without addressing the demand side, in business terms.”
“The health of a community is a bigger and bigger factor with where businesses locate today. When they come and say, ‘Wow, this is a city and state that takes all those obligations seriously,’ I think it helps us in attracting business,” Haslam said. “The struggle is not unique to Nashville. But I think if we can show we’re doing something about it, it helps us in everything else we’re trying to do.”
Asked about the lasting impressions of seeing the sting, Haslam said: “Just having the awareness that this is an issue here, like it is everywhere
else. And if you’re thinking about being a customer, think twice.”