COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – When the women at a Sullivant Avenue drop-in center heard their friend and fellow sex worker Donna Castleberry was killed in the back seat of a Columbus vice officer’s car, the center’s staff was sure of one thing going forward: They would refrain from calling the police.
Since retired Columbus police officer Andrew Mitchell fatally shot the 23-year-old mother of two during a prostitution sting on the West Side in August 2018, Taylor Prusinski said the drop-in centers she operates for those entangled in central Ohio’s sex trade have “drastically” changed their policies pertaining to law enforcement.
“The women have expressed a deep distrust for the Columbus police department, and we have chosen to honor their experiences and feelings,” said Prusinski, director of the nonprofit Compassion Outreach Ministries of Ohio. “Most of them are scared and traumatized.”
On Aug. 23, 2018, Mitchell shot and killed Castleberry while working undercover for the Columbus Division of Police’s now-defunct vice unit. His second murder trial kicked off in Franklin County this week, where a jury is tasked with determining whether his use of force was justified.
But Hannah Estabrook – executive director of Sanctuary Night, a drop-in center for vulnerable women on Sullivant Avenue – said Castleberry’s death was just a tipping point in the community’s perception of Mitchell, a 30-year veteran of the police force.
Before Castleberry’s death, Estabrook said she reported to the Division of Police “some concerning behaviors” allegedly used by Mitchell while interacting with the women served by Sanctuary Night. In 2019, those behaviors were brought to light when federal prosecutors accused Mitchell of kidnapping sex workers under the guise of arrest and forcing them to perform sexual acts in exchange for their freedom.
About a month after Estabrook brought her complaints to the division, she heard the news that would eventually bring tears to the eyes of vulnerable women that she serves on a daily basis: a vice officer had shot and killed a sex worker.
“My first thought was, ‘If it’s Andrew Mitchell, I’m going to lose my mind,’” she said.
Sure enough, her fear became reality. Mitchell – whose defense attorneys contend he was acting in self-defense to fend off Castleberry’s knife attack – was charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter in 2019.
But Mitchell is hardly the first law enforcement official to be accused of violence against sex workers. A 2006 study from the New York-based Urban Justice Center found about 30% of street-based sex workers were threatened with violence by police, and 16% of indoor sex workers reported sexual encounters with police.
“A lot of the women were really shook up at (Donna’s) loss, and I think, of course, just the reality that that could be them,” Estabrook said. “A lot of what was being verbalized was, ‘That could have been me,’ or, you know, ‘That’s the risk we take every day.’”
In light of Castleberry’s death, Prusinski said her nonprofit’s two drop-in centers cut most contact with police. Dialing 911 is typically reserved to request an ambulance, she said, and in those cases, the nonprofit’s staff always asks for a female officer to respond.
Visitors to the drop-in centers are given a heads-up if a police officer is heading over, allowing them the opportunity to leave before law enforcement arrives, Prusinski said.
Both Prusinski and Estabrook, however, said there are officers who have a deep understanding of addiction, sex work and homelessness. Estabrook said she’s heard of officers who bring McDonald’s and basic goods to the women served by drop-in centers.
“We know there are police officers who desire to help the women in Franklinton,” Prusinski said.
One silver lining of Mitchell’s trial, Estabrook said, is that an act of violence against a sex worker is being taken seriously – a rarity for many of the women whose reports of abuse often fall on deaf ears. “It gives some courage to women on the street to actually report things that have happened to them,” she said.
Regardless of the trial’s outcome, Prusinski said she is pleased Castleberry and her legacy have not been forgotten.
“We have built a community and family on Sullivant Avenue,” she said, “and we will hold each other close as this trial unfolds.”