Buffalo, NY

Tactics Used

Buyer Arrests
Reverse stings
Identity Disclosure
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Letters
Cameras
Web stings
License suspension
Employment Loss
IT Based Tactics

Buffalo is the second largest city in New York, with approximately 260,000 residents. It is the county seat of Erie County. Prostitution at street level, facilitated online, and occurring within adult-oriented businesses has caused persistent and formidable problems within the city for decades. Residents on the East Side and West Side, in particular, have complained about how prostitution attracts strangers to their streets, leading to drug dealing, assaults, robberies and other crimes. At the darkest end of the spectrum are sex trafficking of children and the homicides of prostituted women, including a serial killer convicted of killing two women in the 1990s, and a string of at least 10 unsolved homicide cases (most prostitution-related) in the region.

Reverse Stings and Identity Disclosure

In the mid-1970s, officers from the Buffalo Police Department were among the “early adopters” of demand-driven tactics, conducting the city’s first street-level reverse sting in December 1977. Following the operation, The Buffalo Evening News and Buffalo Courier-Express publicized the names of all of the men arrested, making the city among the first in the nation to use identity disclosure as means of deterrence.

Since 1977, the BPD has arrested well over 1,000 sex buyers. It continues to conduct frequent, large-scale sex buyer stings, with undercover female officers as decoys. While the vast majority of decoys have been officers from the BPD, police have at times “borrowed” officers from the New York State Police to avoid recognition. In their efforts, Buffalo police often collaborate and coordinate with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. Once arrested for solicitation, sex buyers in Buffalo can be subject to a series of penalties, including identity disclosure and john school. Arrested sex buyers may have their vehicle towed and impounded, as per a 1993 city ordinance that allows law enforcement to seize autos used for the purposes of solicitation.

While Buffalo was among the first dozen cities to implement a john school and has a long history of combating demand generally, the focus on demand lagged from about 2005-2012, in part due to budget limitations in the police department. In 2013, a renewed commitment to combating demand was indicated by a revived identity disclosure effort (posting photos on a police department web page) and statements by police about the importance of addressing demand.

“We have been locking up prostitutes for years, and the problem keeps coming back. Now we’re going to try a different approach. We’re not only locking up the prostitutes, but their customers, and publicizing it. Maybe that will deter people from seeking the services of prostitutes. If there are no customers, it will put them out of business.”

— Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, October 2, 2013

Although Buffalo had released identities of sex buyers, it was unclear through 2013 if the city still aired the names of offenders on cable-access television (as it did in the late 1990s with “John TV”), but arrested sex buyers continued to have their name and other identifying information publicized by local newspapers. As previously noted, in August 2013, the Police Commissioner announced a new campaign to disclose identities of sex buyers by posting their photos and identifiers online. Color photographs and names of suspected sex buyers would be released “in the near future” at www.bpdny.org. In October 2013, it was announced that the program would begin in January 2014. In September 2014, following a series of operations that resulted in the arrests of both sex buyers and prostituted women, the BPD posted all of the arrestees’ names and mugshots to their Facebook page.

In addition to reverse sting operations, law enforcement have also engaged in opportunistic sex buyer arrests in Buffalo. For example, in May 2018, Erie County Sheriff’s deputies arrested a man for patronizing a prostitute after they responded to an alert by a county security guard that a man was chasing a woman through the parking lot of a county health clinic. Upon their arrival, the woman requested their assistance and the man accused the woman of taking his money, requesting the return of $10 he gave her for oral sex. The woman was taken into custody and the man was charged with patronizing a prostitute, as well as having his name, age, and hometown released to the press.

John School

In the 1990s, the Buffalo Police Department created a task force to study prostitution patterns in the city and determine new strategies to identify and apprehend sex buyers. Among the recommendations put forth were (1) an increased commitment to conducting reverse stings and arresting solicitors, and (2) the establishment of a “john school” to educate offenders.

The Buffalo John School, established in 1997, offers sex buyers the opportunity to have their charges reduced or dismissed in exchange for their completion of a diversion program. The day-long course included lectures on the health consequences associated with purchasing sex (as presented by a representative from the Erie County Health Department), as well as the legal ramifications for those involved (as presented by a representative from the Erie County District Attorney’s Office). It also included presentations from HIV/AIDS counselors (from the city’s Project Reach), addiction counselors, and former prostituted women. Sex buyers were required to pay a $100 fee to enroll in the course, unless otherwise specified by a judge. Since its implementation, the school has reported a 0.0068% recidivism rate for “graduates.”

Neighborhood Action

For their part, Buffalo residents and business owners have also mobilized to deter sex buyers in their community. In June 2015, business owners on the city’s West Side posted signs on storefronts and telephone poles with the warning “Attention Johns, You’re Being Watched.” When asked about the signs by WBFO-FM radio, one business owner commented:

“We are targeting our efforts on the men themselves that are coming down here…The women have a lot of issues and a complex history that has led them out here and if we can target our efforts on the men that are preying on the community that would really be great.”

A BPD representative echoed this sentiment following a street-level reversal in July 2015, commenting to WIVB-TV:

“Johns should be aware that if you’re out there and you’re looking for prostitutes, you may be arrested. If we arrest you we’re going to post your picture on the website for the world to see.”

Key Partners

  • Buffalo Police Department
    • Prostitution Task Force
  • Erie County Sheriff’s Office
  • New York State Police
  • Buffalo City Court
  • Erie County Health Department
  • Erie County District Attorney’s Office
  • Project Reach
  • Allentown Association (neighborhood group)

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey and Interviews

John School:

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Sex Buyer Arrest, Identity Disclosure:

Identity Disclosure:

Auto Seizure:

Neighborhood Action:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State New York
Type City
Population 256480
Location
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