Crackdown

| September 03, 2002

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The owner of an independent truck stop known for prostitution turns its image around by bringing in police patrols and boosting security. A police sting nabs truckers who make a date with the wrong “party girl.” A major fleet implements a system to alert its drivers of questionable truck stops and rest areas.

Efforts such as these are helping clean up prostitution and related problems that have long plagued truck stops and rest areas.

Eight years ago, Dave Silverman, owner of Walt Whitman Truck Stop in downtown Philadelphia, vowed to clear his truck stop of prostitution and other crime. Today, police patrol his location several times daily. He installed security cameras and employs a private security guard. “If we see it at its original point of the prostitute leaving a truck, that trucker is asked to leave and never come back – even if it’s a house account,” he says.

Silverman is hardly alone in his efforts to discourage prostitution. Members of NATSO, the trade association of truck stop and travel plaza operators, have been making their lots safer for years, says NATSO spokeswoman Lisa Mullings. In the wake of Sept. 11, truck stop safety efforts are increasing, she says. “We’re encouraging our members to adopt comprehensive security measures,” Mullings says.

With more than 57 locations, Petro spends more than $2 million each year on security, including contracts with local law enforcement and with private security firms. In addition, 70 percent of its parking areas are fenced. “We try to restrict our parking areas to professional drivers only,” says Keith Kirkpatrick, Petro director of operations. “We can’t prevent [prostitution], all we can do is have deterrents out there.”

A high-tech camera has been an effective deterrent at the T/A in Knoxville, Tenn., says Cyndi Flack, who works at the fuel desk. “Word has gotten out to all the lot lizards in Knoxville, and they no longer visit our parking lot,” she says. “If there is one caught on the lot we zoom the camera in and film until the law gets there, and they both go to jail.” This level of security has earned the truck stop positive comments from truckers, Flack says. “We are striving to make a better place for the drivers to rest and to have a good time while they are visiting us.”

Some carriers take a proactive role in keeping their drivers safe on the road. Swift Transportation, for example, has established good communications with truck stop security officers, as well as with law enforcement personnel around the country, says Gary Fitzsimmons, security director.

“I routinely have security people call me about things going on with our drivers,” Fitzsimmons says. “Sometimes they say they saw a known prostitute get in one of our trucks. I’ve had that happen twice this year.” Such an incident is grounds for termination.

The truck stops themselves benefit, too, from their enhanced security efforts, as Silverman has found. “I’ve gained business because there are more good drivers out there than bad,” he says. “We’re averaging 15 percent women drivers – up from zero,” he says. “They feel safe coming here.”

Women drivers are not the only ones who seek out truck stops that emphasize security. “I was in Georgia at a T/A in Cartersville,” says owner-operator Don Berry, 44, of Centerville, Ind. “As soon as it gets dark, the cops patrol. I like that. I don’t do the mom-and-pop, out-of-the-way places because that’s where [prostitutes] seem to want to frequent.”

“At a lot of truck stops, if they hear of a prostitute in the parking lot, they’ll call the police and run them off or have them taken to jail,” says owner-operator David Pyle of Hopkinsville, Ky. “The truck stops care about their image. That helps dramatically with the prostitutes and drugs.”

After experiencing problems with prostitution and other crimes at the rest area on I-5 between San Diego and Los Angeles, California considered closing it. Instead, officials added 24-hour security and paid the highway patrol for extra surveillance. “We went from a circus to a park-like atmosphere,” says Ralph Carhart, statewide rest area planning and design coordinator.

He says having truckers in rest areas overnight can serve as a deterrent to crime. “Yahoos who come in might be less likely to disturb a sleepy trucker,” Carhart says. “Truckers can be our eyes and ears at facilities to protect them for other people’s use.”

Like California, Texas is also trying to crack down on rest area crime. The state is adding lighting, security patrols and security cameras. “Truckers should feel when they pull into a Texas rest area like they can get the rest they need without someone knocking on their cab,” says Andy Keith, rest area manager for the Texas Department of Transportation.

Knowing that there will always be some rest areas and truck stops that are less secure than others, Prime Inc. encourages its drivers to report potential problems to the 12-person security staff headed by Randy Price.

“We try to do basically our own semi-small-crime analysis of the nation’s paths we operate in,” he says. The company rewards drivers for phoning in suspicious activity at truck stops and rest areas, and shares the warnings with Prime drivers. Prime forwards the information to law enforcement and loans equipment for sting operations to police, the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Price says.

Other carriers also cooperate with law enforcement, says Inspector Mike Allen of the West Memphis, Ark., police. “We’ve actually had officers posing as truck drivers. They’ll call on the CB and say they are in a certain type of truck. Once the female says she will do whatever for $20, $40, $100, the officer will make a probable cause arrest.”

Truckers get busted, too. In a June 8 undercover operation at a motel in Brookville, Pa., police arrested six truckers after they arranged over the CB to meet a self-described “party girl” who turned out to be an undercover officer. The truckers pled guilty, paid $100 fines plus $93 in court costs and now have permanent criminal records.

“I wish the cop had just shot me,” one defendant told District Justice Richard Beck. “I’ll probably end up in a divorce over this.”

Going undercover is often the only way to crack down on prostitutes and their customers, says Sergeant Kevin Bickle with the Brookville Police Department. “In Pennsylvania, we have to hear the transaction taking place or see money changing hands, so it’s very difficult to get an arrest without undercover,” Bickle says.

Such operations help deter prostitution, he says, because news of a crackdown spreads fast. “Word gets out by CB radio. When you nail six people, it’s like pudding getting warm. It just runs everywhere.” That’s proof, Bickle says, that arrests are not always necessary for effective law enforcement.

A similar operation conducted one week later is a case in point. “Obviously, the first sting was effective because we got zero,” Bickle says. This time, when truckers heard a woman offering her services over the CB, they quickly warned fellow drivers. The undercover police woman lured one trucker to her hotel room, “but he wouldn’t commit,” Bickle says. “He wanted her to take her clothes off to prove she wasn’t a cop.” No arrest was made since no money changed hands.

Owner-operator Pyle agrees that stings are a deterrent. “The undercover cops are doing a pretty good job in some areas of trying to clean up the image,” he says. “At 10 o’clock on Sunday morning one was on the radio in San Antonio. The people who answered her – you never heard anything from them anymore.”

In an undercover effort in Oklahoma, “We had men go up dressed as women,” says Bobby Gray, a former McIntosh County Sheriff who fought crime

at rest areas on Tiger Mountain, off I-30 between Henryetta and Checotah. After being fined for a misdemeanor, truckers who get caught “go on down the road about their business,” Gray says.

Stings that target prostitutes are usually prompted by calls from truckers complaining that prostitutes are disturbing their rest, police say. These operations often do not have much long-term impact, Gray says. “You take them down and fine them $100, and then they go right back and make it up in 30 minutes,” he says.

Silverman, owner of Philadelphia’s Walt Whitman Truck Stop, says fighting vice requires a constant effort. “It’s a battle every day,” he says. “The key is to get a reputation for zero tolerance.”

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