When a college athlete was injured and in danger of losing her scholarship, she decided to strip to make extra money — launching a devastating chain of events.
Shamere McKenzie, a native of Jamaica, was forced into prostitution in New York by a violent pimp. She was eventually rescued by police — and prosecuted.
What happened to her is all too common in the United States, including Tennessee, police say.
Law enforcement officials are trying to crack down on the pimps and their customers while recognizing women like McKenzie as victims instead of prostitutes.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was awarded a federal grant this month that will be used over the next two years to educate social workers, police and prosecutors across the state, TBI Asst. Special Agent-in-Charge Margie Quin said.
According to a 2011 TBI study, an estimated 1,200 Tennessee minors are at risk for sexual exploitation. The study also revealed that the majority of police officers surveyed said they need more training on the topic.
“Once we get out and train folks how to identify victims, are we going to realize we have an even bigger problem than we think?” Quin asked.
She said she expects to see a rise in cases once police know what to look for. Shelby County had more than 100 cases last year involving minors.
Quin cited the example of law enforcement officers being trained on how to spot methamphetamine labs, resulting in the state rising to the top in the nation for meth arrests.
“Five years ago, it didn’t look like that big of a problem,” she said of meth. “Now, we’re No. 1 in the the nation.”
The TBI supervisor said the state training on sex trafficking also will work to adjust attitudes that teens and women choose prostitution when often they are forced into the trade.
McKenzie, a convicted felon and now a nationally recognized victim advocate, said training is needed nationwide.
She spoke last week in Chicago to a group of police officers, prosecutors, social workers and attorneys general from across the nation.
She told how she was beaten, raped and threatened by a gun-wielding pimp who forced her into prostitution and into driving other victims across the country.
When she tried to resist, he would press a gun in her mouth or to her head. Once, he pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t go off, she said.
She was ultimately convicted of violating the Mann Act, which involves willingly crossing state lines for prostitution.
“The key is ‘willingly,'” she said. “Am I to interpret the law to mean that I should have chosen death? Think about it.”
Her speech was part of a battle cry to rally attorneys general to fight this growing crime trend.
“I’m excited to know that people want to make a difference,” she said. “While being trafficked, I never thought anyone cared.”
State Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, said he wants to sponsor a bill expunging the criminal records of victims like McKenzie, who said her felony record left her unemployed for more than a year. Though he’s proud of Tennessee’s anti-trafficking laws, he said, more work needs to be done.