Columbus, OH

Tactics Used

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

Columbus is a central Ohio city and the state capital, and has a population of approximately 890,00 residents. It is the government seat of Franklin County, Ohio. The city was an “early adopter” among cities in the U.S. that have focused on combating demand for commercial sex. Prostitution has been a problem in the city for decades, and more recently, numerous cases of sex trafficking have been investigated and resulted in convictions. In October of 2021, six defendants and new charges involving sex trafficking were added to a case pending against a Columbus man who was the head of an organization engaged in various types of criminal activity, including drug trafficking, sex trafficking, mail fraud, and wire fraud. The man allegedly used threats, violence, and manipulation of drug dependencies to ensure individuals continued to carry out his criminal schemes, including an alleged conspiracy in which women were sex trafficked to earn drug money. The offender allegedly initially gave the women drugs for free, and later sex trafficked them in exchange for drug money, collected the proceeds, enforced specific rules on the women, and punished the women through physical violence. In September, 2022, the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force asked for the public’s assistance to locate an indicted suspect following the arrest of her co-defendant. A man had been indicted by a Franklin County grand jury in Aug., 2022, on one count of trafficking in persons, a first-degree felony; compelling prostitution, a third-degree felony; and promoting prostitution, a third-degree felony, and was taken into custody by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the Columbus Division of Police. A woman also was indicted on three felony counts of trafficking in persons, compelling prostitution and promoting prostitution. She was not taken into custody, and anyone with information about her whereabouts was asked to contact the Columbus Police Department.

Among the numerous examples of additional problems stemming from prostitution and sex trafficking in Columbus are weapons offenses.  For example, in August, 2022, a man tried tried to hire a 17 year old male to perform a sexual act for $500, and told the boy “he would be his manager.” The boy escaped and returned with a shotgun to threaten the offender. The city has served as the operating base of a serial killer who specifically targeted prostituted women. Several other documented cases of sexually exploited women being killed by male sex buyers have also been reported. Child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, often called “child pornography” in state criminal codes) have also been involved in sex trade activities.

To combat consumer-level demand that drives both prostitution and sex trafficking, Columbus police have conducted reverse stings since 1974, and web-based reversals since 2008. For example, in August 2021, it was reported that one decoy online advertisement for commercial sex placed by Columbus police resulted in roughly 5,100 responses from potential sex buyers. In addition to reverse stings, a wide range of approaches have been adopted in the city, including public education and neighborhood action campaigns, and post-arrest interventions such as “Dear John” letters, a john school, and mandatory community service for arrested sex buyers.

While the city has employed such demand-driven tactics, the bulk of its efforts to combat prostitution prior to 2013 primarily focused on the arrest of prostituted people and survivors of sexual exploitation. In July 2013, the vice unit of the Columbus Police Department announced that it was changing the way it fought prostitution. Soon after, the department began a month-long campaign targeting sex buyers. Columbus Police Department vice detectives spent much of 2013 almost exclusively arresting sex buyers during anti-prostitution details, and arrested a total of 71 sex buyers. Following one operation, an officer noted that, “there were times that [the CPD was] operating on a street corner when there were more customers than [the CPD] had personnel to arrest.” The city also witnessed community engagement and activity in response to the city-wide “End the Demand” campaign since 2013. For example, representatives of Rahab’s Hideaway, a program for women trying to escape from prostitution, have spoken at conferences and worked with local agencies and organizations to promote tactics intended to reduce demand (i.e., a form of public education on demand) as a part of the city-wide “End the Demand” campaign. Representatives of She Has a Name, a survivor support organization, provide presentations to arrested sex buyers in the city’s john school. In 2016, a form of neighborhood or community action occurred when the Hilltonia Village Association in Columbus established the “Shaming Johns” website.

As of late 2018, Columbus laws allowed a fine of up to $1,000 and 30 days in jail, but few men served any time in custody, and analysis of 2016 and 2017 court records showed the average for fines given to men caught soliciting was $72. However, in September 2021, in an effort to crackdown on sex trafficking, the Columbus City Council approved penalties for purchasing sex within the city. The Council approved an amendment to city codes to create a “sexual exploitation” offense and outlined penalties associated with the charge. Legislative text included in the meeting agenda defined sexual exploitation as “recklessly inducing or enticing another to engage in sexual activity for hire in exchange for the person giving anything of value to the other person.” A first offense could result in a minimum fine of $300. A second violation within 5 years would cost at least $550 and 10 days in jail. A person convicted more than twice would see a minimum $800 fine and 15 days in jail. At a judge’s discretion, the offender might also be required to attend an education or treatment program. Before the September 2021 changes, the stated penalty for purchasing sex in Columbus City Code was a first-degree misdemeanor, with an average penalty for solicitation of $74 and no jail time, and the fines typically did not increase for repeat offenses.

Employment Loss

Employment loss is also a consequence of buying sex that has occurred in the city. For example, in 2008, a former Ohio State University Nursing Advisor was placed on paid administrative leave following being arrested and charged with numerous counts of promoting prostitution. In 2016, an Ohio State University defensive tackle pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution. OSU suspended the player as a result of his arrest. Also in 2016, three patrol officers with the Columbus Police Department were relieved of duty after they became the subjects of separate solicitation investigations. In 2018, the vice unit of the Columbus Police Department became the subject of a federal corruption investigation, and in March of 2019, one of its detectives was indicted, leading officials to the decision of disbanding the vice unit. The Justice Department indicted a CPD detective alleging he kidnapped prostituted women under the pretense of arrest, and coerced them to engage in sex in exchange for their release. The detective faces seven federal charges, and following the indictment the City Attorney’s Office dismissed 18 cases charging women with prostitution-related offenses that were investigated by the former detective. The indicted detective has since resigned from his position and retired in bad standing from the department. The disbanded vice unit was replaced with a community focused team called PACT (Police and Community Together). It is unclear what impact that will have on future prostitution operations and the john school program in Columbus. In September 2021, a firefighter with the Columbus Division of Fire was arrested in a statewide human trafficking operation. The arrest was one of over 160 as part of Operation Ohio Knows, which Attorney General Dave Yost described as “the largest human trafficking sting in the history of the state, to date.” The firefighter was charged with engaging with prostitution, a 1st-degree misdemeanor, and pleaded not guilty. The accused firefighter is currently under administrative investigation and is pending disciplinary action, according to a statement from the department’s Captain.

John School

The Columbus John Education Program has been in operation since 2005, and usually takes on 150 to 200 sex buyers per year. Since its inception, the program had only had 12 repeat offenders on record as of 2018. The curriculum aims to educate offenders about the negative impacts of prostitution and deter them from committing similar crimes again. Between 2007 and 2012, more than 150 men (mostly first-time offenders with no record of violence) completed the city’s john school program, launched by the Columbus City Attorney’s Office. As of the end of 2012, Assistant City Attorney Michael C. Allbritain reported that the program conducted three or four john school sessions per year, depending upon the flow of men provided by police operations. The program functioned as both a diversion and a sentencing option. Some men were sent to the school as part of a plea agreement arranged by their attorneys, and others were ordered to attend as a condition of their probation. Speakers have typically included police officers, women formerly involved in prostitution and former victims of human trafficking, Columbus Public Health officials, and community activists. When asked about the program, Allbritain said:

“This program is useful and runs at little to no cost. If we did not have this program, the john would most likely pay a small fine and then get his case expunged. The point of this program is to educate them and let them know that this is not a victimless crime…For me a successful person that’s been through the program is someone that does not do this activity ever again. I’d like to think that they left the program with their whole mentality changed and they’re not going to be a part of the problem anymore, they’re going to be a part of the solution.”

Upon completion of the program, one of the participants (a 48-year-old salesman) attending a 2012 session commented:

“Both the disease aspect and the safety aspect were huge to me. It wasn’t judgmental. It was about understanding the situation, and I appreciated that. I can’t say it’s going to work for everyone  You’re going to reach some, and that’s better than not doing it at all.”

In February of 2016, an Ohio State University defensive tackle pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution. According to reports, the sex buyer was arrested during a web-sting targeting individuals seeking to engage in commercial sex. As a result of his arrest the former player was allowed to participate in a john school as an alternative sentence. After completing the course, the solicitation charged was dropped. However, OSU maintained their suspension of the player, ending his collegiate football career.

From 2016 to 2019, over 200 men had completed the John School program in Columbus. More recently, classes have been large and have included men arrested in other communities in the Columbus area; for example, in July 2021, a john school class had 58 male sex buyers in attendance.

For more information on john schools in Ohio, click HERE.

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey, Interviews (2012)

John School:

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

Employment Loss, Identity Disclosure:

Cameras:

Public Education:

Private Website – Identity Disclosure:

Neighborhood Action:

  • “Short North Spies Know Who’s Naughty”, Columbus Dispatch, September 10 1989.
  • “Short North Fighting Back against Crime”, Columbus Dispatch, July 22 1990.
  • “Good Police Work”, Columbus Dispatch, August 21 1990.
  • “East Side Group Hangs Fliers Naming Prostitutes’ Clients”, Columbus Dispatch, October 28 1992.
  • https://www.10tv.com/progress-report-linden-neighborhood-teams-help-sex-workers (2017)

Dear John Letters:

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 Ohio
Type City
Population 889079
Location
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