A conversation with Phyllis Tonkin is not one you will soon forget.
She sees and hears things that break her heart, things you and the rest of us never want to know about. She is doing everything she can do, every day, to help protect our children and young people.
Her job? She is one of three investigators (also called detectives) in the Knoxville Police Department’s Special Crimes Unit. She investigates internet sex crimes against children, mostly girls and some boys, who are being manipulated online by sex predators. Those predators are mostly male, all ages, but some are females.
The worst of the worst she’s seen? A 25-day old baby girl being raped. That’s all she’ll say about that case.
“This is the perspective I have taken – nobody wants to see it, but the Lord has given me the ability to endure the pain these children have gone through and to be the person between the child and the offender,” this 20-year KPD veteran says. “I have the ability to investigate and become the voice for those whose innocence was stolen. I may not like it, but it’s all about getting justice for the children.”
After four years on patrol, Tonkin, now 52, joined the department’s Criminal Investigations Division in November 2006. There she devoted her time to investigating child and elder abuse, domestic violence and missing person cases along with the human trafficking of children.
Ask her what she does today, and she tells you: “In our unit we investigate anything from child exploitation that leads to child pornography, sextortion where predators make online enticements to these children. We look at the videos and images of children being victimized, thousands being raped annually and that’s happening here, too.”
KPD’s unit is part of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and is the lead agency for the state. Tonkin’s unit funnels cyber tips about these crimes to 56 agencies in Tennessee and is part of the International Crimes Task Force. In addition, she has routinely demonstrated her proficiency and willingness to collaborate with state and federal law enforcement partners to help solve her cases and others.
These sick predators – master manipulators, Tonkin says – talk these children into taking selfie pictures and videos of themselves naked or performing sex acts and they turn this into child pornography. “We had an 8-year-old little girl doing this, sending pictures and such and her parents didn’t have a clue,” Tonkin said.
The children are using the open-access internet platforms for this – Facebook, Snapchat, Tik Tok, Twitter, Instagram and any social media platform they can find or are told about or led to use by the predator.
Tonkin does not mince words. “Our parents need to be more involved in their children’s lives and aware of what they are doing. Get them off the phones and the computers. Check what they’re doing on their phones, especially pictures. Get them different phones and find the apps (applications) so you can monitor them. These kids are our future and parents not monitoring them are doing their kids an injustice.”
Tonkin added these significant bits of news next: “… Some of the kids know workarounds when they suspect they’re being monitored. One of the most effective apps is “Bark” and there are others. Also, we ask parents if they suspect something and get their phones, don’t go digging through the phone. Call us and let us do that. The parents may be destroying evidence and not realize it. Those digital footprints are vital for us.”
That’s Investigator Tonkin professionally. Now, how about the person?
Tonkin’s dedication, strength and attitude are writ large in 2018-2019. She discovered a lump during a self exam in 2017. She had breast cancer surgery and 33 radiation treatments and kept working through the whole thing. Her fellow KPD officers created a “Team Tonkin” shirt to support her and help raise money for breast cancer awareness.
She was reared in Pennsylvania, daughter of a school teacher, and has two brothers, one a medical doctor and the other a consultant. Sports were big in the family and she excelled in basketball in high school. After graduation she accepted a scholarship to Virginia Tech and played point guard for four years. Her degree was in sports administration and a career in sports was her direction.
After moving to Knoxville, she says she became “a professional student.” She earned a pair of master’s degrees – exercise science and recreation facilities management. She was a graduate assistant for the Lady Vols under Coach Summit between 1996-1998.
So, what was the genesis of this cop career? “I started working at UT in events management for softball and soccer and was around police officers a lot, talking and hanging out. I even did a ride-along with the bicycle officers downtown. It kinda got in my blood and I was a KPD reserve officer for two years. I saw what a positive impact they have and decided the career was for me. I felt like I fit right in.” KPD hired her in 2002. She was 32.
It’s safe to say she’s loved and respected within the KPD. So much so that in 2016 she was the department’s co-officer of the year and in 2019 was selected to receive the prestigious 2019 Mike Waggoner Leadership Award and Waggoner presented it to her.
The last thing she said to end our conversation is vintage Phyllis and reflects who she is and what’s she about: “What I do is important, so write about that and not about me.”
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia.