Bellevue, WA

Tactics Used

Auto Seizure
Buyer Arrests
Community Service
Employment Loss
Identity Disclosure
IT Based Tactics
John School
License Suspension
Neighborhood Action
Public Education
Reverse Stings
SOAP Orders
Web Stings

Bellevue is a suburb of about 150,000 residents in King County, WA. It is located across Lake Washington from Seattle. Prostitution and sex trafficking are well-documented problems in the city and have generated, in addition to complaints to police from the community, an array of serious felonies such as robbery, weapons offenses, and serial rapists targeting prostituted women.

Bellevue police have engaged in a number of strategies to combat prostitution and sex trafficking in the area. In 1996, a month-long surveillance of a house in downtown Bellevue led to a raid and the arrest of 11 people involved in a nationwide prostitution ring. Sex buyers from Bellevue, Everett and Seattle were arrested. The police also arrested five women from Thailand, Taiwan and Laos, four of which were in the United States illegally. Police believe the women worked as part of a ring that operated in Sacramento, Los Angeles and in Oklahoma. More recent police operations have generated evidence of both localized prostitution and larger sex trafficking networks.

In March 2013, another operation revealed local brothels in Bellevue which were operating as part of larger human trafficking network. Police indicted six people for conspiracy to transport individuals for prostitution, conspiracy to use a communications facility to promote prostitution, and conspiracy to engage in money laundering. The indictment was returned following an undercover investigation involving the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Kirkland Police Department, the Bellevue Police Department, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The conspirators advertised Asian women for “massage services” on, and leased apartments in Bellevue and Kirkland, Scottsdale, Arizona, Chicago, Illinois, and Falls Church/Tysons Corner, Virginia.  The Bellevue portion of the network was discovered when police investigated reports of apparent prostitution activity at a Kirkland apartment complex. Many of the women who were exploited for sexual services were in the U.S. illegally and owed debts of as much as $60,000 to the leader of the prostitution ring for providing them with employment opportunities in the United States.

Reverse stings have also been included in Bellevue’s response to sex trafficking and prostitution. In addition to the arrests made in 1996,  a joint sting operation in March 2014 by Bellevue Police and the King County Sheriff’s Office led to the arrest of 10 sex buyers. In an effort to focus on reducing demand in sex trafficking, detectives posted online ads for prostitution services to draw in men seeking to sexually exploit adults and minors. One of the men agreed to meet an undercover detective posing as a prostituted woman at a Bellevue hotel. Officers observed the man in the parking lot and arrested him after he was identified as being possibly armed. The man later admitted that he planned to use a pistol and a fixed-blade knife to rob the undercover officer. Police later discovered the man had committed 16 additional robberies in the Puget Sound region over the past four months. When asked about the department’s decision to target pimps, traffickers and sex buyers, the Bellevue Police Chief stated in 2014,

“I think men out there sometimes maybe don’t realize that when it comes to trafficking these young women, not only are you blowing up their lives but you can blow up your whole life when you’re doing that.”

In August of 2017, the Bellevue Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office arrested more than 100 people in a large scale reverse sting aimed at online prostitution and sex trafficking. Over seven days, dozens of sex buyers answered online ads posted by undercover detectives and exchanged text messages describing sex acts they expected to buy. Police called the investigation “Operation On Demand,” and buyers were arrested after appearing at a condominium and agreeing with undercover officers to exchange money for sex. In addition to the arrests, 105 cars were impounded, along with two motorcycles and one bicycle. Most of those arrested were expected to face misdemeanor prostitution charges, carrying a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. In December of 2017, it was reported that misdemeanor charges filed against more than half of the men arrested were dismissed after it was discovered that police had unintentionally recorded audio between the sex buyers and undercover female officers. Hidden cameras have been used to document elements of the crime of patronizing a prostitute. Additionally, audio conversations between the suspects and undercover officers were recorded in 61 of the 110 cases. State law requires two-party consent to record audio conversations.

In December, 2021 Bellevue police detectives arrested 16 men for suspicion of patronizing a prostitute during a one-night sting at a local motel. Detectives had reason to believe one of the men wanted to kill a prostituted woman. Officers found two guns in the waistband of the man’s pants. The men arrested in the sting agreed to pay $80 to $280 for sex. Several of the men brought sex toys, alcohol and drugs to their “dates.”

Some men arrested in Bellevue have also been ordered to perform up to 240 hours of community service. Others are required to have no contact for five years with any website or business where prostitution services are advertised or offered. This is the electronic equivalent of a “stay away” or SOAP order.

John School Programs

Additionally, there have been at least four known john school programs in King County. The first known john school in the county operated from 2006 to 2007, whereby sex buyers could avoid significant criminal charges if they paid a substantial enrollment fee, attended educational classes, and avoided re-arrest. The course, which included lectures from health professionals and formerly prostituted women, also addressed the growing presence of trafficking networks in the region. By discussing the long-term impacts of sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation on victims and their families, the program hoped to educate sex buyers about the potential consequences of purchasing commercial sex. The program was a one-day classroom experience modeled after the San Francisco First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP). Although the program was not renewed beyond its pilot period, in 2015, a similar john school was launched in Seattle. In 2019, the program was transferred from the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) to the Lantern Project, and modified. Its description may be found here.

Buyer Beware Program

In 2014, the King County Prosecutor’s Office launched a new initiative designed to reduce the demand for prostitution, change the attitudes and behaviors of men arrested for patronization, and eliminate cultural acceptance of the purchase of sex. The Buyer Beware initiative is a partnership with eight police departments and city attorneys’ offices across King County that are shifting their emphasis to pursue sex buyers. The initiative is led by the Organization for Prostitution Survivors and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Participating community organizations include Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), Stolen Youth, and Seattle Against Slavery. Participating law enforcement agencies include the King County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments of Seattle, Des Moines, Kent, Federal Way, Bellevue, and Renton.

Buyer Beware brings together local prosecuting authorities, community service organizations, and survivors to implement a comprehensive strategy to reduce demand for commercial sex and facilitate exit from prostitution. The Buyer Beware program model emphasizes prosecuting sex buyers and connecting prostituted people to services. The original goal in 2014 was to reduce demand for commercial sex by 20% in two years.

The program’s approach is essentially the “Nordic Model” or “Equality Model” which decriminalizes selling sex and criminalizes the actions of pimps and buyers, rather than the actions of prostituted persons. This model can be accomplished without changing prostitution law by making discretionary decisions not to arrest and prosecute prostituted or trafficked persons, even if selling sex remains illegal in state law and local ordinances. Additionally, the Buyer Beware program includes John Schools, neighborhood action, and public education. The key elements of the program are:

  • Referring sex buyers to “Stopping Sexual Exploitation,” a comprehensive intervention program.
  • Collecting fines from arrested sex buyers to fund services for prostituted people.
  • Reducing arrests and prosecutions of prostituted persons in favor of referral to services.
  • Expanding effective services to assist prostituted people in leaving the life.
  • Forming an alliance of public and private employers committed to implementing policies and practices against sex buying.
  • Educating high school and college students on the harms of commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Conducting social media campaigns to educate young men on the harms of sex buying.
  • Changing cultural norms surrounding the purchase of sex by involving a variety of community sectors, such as public health, education, business, media, and criminal justice.

The program planned to launch an online public education tool where advertisements “pop up” when sex buyers input certain terms into search engines. Although the mechanism for deploying these advertisements was not disclosed, when implemented the advertisements would “link to information about prostitution-related penalties and services for men who need help to stop buying sex.”

Key Sources

Sex Buyer Arrests, Identity Disclosure, Cameras:

Vehicle Seizure:

Web-based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

John School, Community Service:

Buyer Beware Program:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

State Washington
Type City
Population 149440
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