Columbus, OH

Tactics Used

Reverse stings
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Web stings
License suspension

Columbus was in the first wave of cities in the U.S. to focus on combating demand for commercial sex.  Prostitution has been a problem in the city for decades, and more recently, several human trafficking cases have been investigated and convictions for sex trafficking have occurred.  Among the numerous examples of problems stemming from prostitution and sex trafficking in Columbus is a case of a woman arrested for the third time after engaging in prostitution, even though she was known to be HIV-positive.  The city has also served as the operating base of a serial killer who specifically targeted sex sellers. Several other documented cases of sex sellers being killed by johns have also been reported.

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.   A wide range of approaches have been adopted in the city, including public education and neighborhood action campaigns, and post-arrest interventions such as a john school, “Dear John” letters, and mandatory community service for offenders.  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.

While the city has employed these demand-driven tactics, the bulk of its efforts to combat prostitution in recent years focused on the arrest of sex sellers. In July 2013, the vice unit of the Columbus Police Department announced that it was changing the way it fights prostitution.  Soon after, the department began a month-long campaign targeting sex buyers. Soon after, CPD vice detectives committed to spending as much time targeting customers as sellers, according to Cmdr. Gary Cameron of the Columbus Police Department narcotics bureau, which includes the vice squad.  Although “80 to 90%” of past efforts to curb prostitution have focused on commercial sex providers, the CPD now “believe that arresting buyers could have a longer-lasting effect.”

The change was reportedly part of a larger central Ohio strategy that aimed to identify ways to fight prostitution beyond arresting sex sellers– who are often the victims of crimes themselves– and provide support services to women trying to leave prostitution. In August 2014, for example, following an anti-prostitution sweep by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office that resulted in the arrest of 28 sex sellers and 17 johns, law enforcement reported that the “women who were arrested were able to talk to a nurse and a representative from Amethyst Inc., an agency that provides long-term addiction and trauma care for homeless women. Workers from Southeast Inc., a behavioral and physical health-care service provider, also were there… they were also told about CATCH court, a specialty docket at Franklin County Municipal Court that works with women charged with prostitution offenses.” Rather incongruously, however, the FCSO chose to release the names and mugshots of the women arrested, but not the johns netted in the same operation.

Columbus Police Department vice detectives spent much of 2013 almost exclusively arresting customers during anti-prostitution details, and took 71 people into custody.  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.”

As of late 2018, Columbus laws allowed a fine of up to $1,000 and 30 days in jail, but few men serve any time in custody, and analysis of 2016 and 2017 court records showed the average for fines given to men caught soliciting was $72 (WOSU Public Media, February 2018).

In 2018 the vice unit of the Columbus Division of Police  become the subject of a federal corruption investigation, and in March 2019 one of its detectives was indicted and the decision to disband the vice unit was announced.  The Justice Department indicted a CPD detective alleging he kidnapped victims under the pretense of arrest and forced them to have sex for their freedom. 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 that detective.  The detective resigned since retired “in bad standing” from the department. It is unclear what impact that will have on future prostitution operations and the john school program in Columbus.

In 2016, a form of neighborhood or community action occurred when the Hilltonia Village Association in Columbus established the “Shaming Johns” website.

John School

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 functions as both a diversion and a sentencing option.  Some men are sent to the school as part of a plea agreement arranged by their attorneys, and others  are ordered to attend as a condition of their probation (Decker, 2012).  Speakers include police officers, women formerly involved in prostitution, 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.”

Upon completion of the program, one of the johns (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 2016, the Columbus Dispatch reported that a high-profile john arrested during a web-based reversal had been offered the diversion program as an alternative sentence. The john pleaded guilty to misdemeanor solicitation in January 2016, completed the course, and had the solicitation charge dropped in February 2016.

From 2016 to 2019, over 200 men had completed the John School program in Columbus.

Key Partners

  • Columbus Police Department
  • Columbus City Attorney’s Office
  • Columbus Department of Public Health
  • South Side Neighbors Against Crime
  • Franklin County Municipal Court
    • Changing Actions to Change Habits (CATCH) Program
  • Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force
  • Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition
  • Rahab’s Hideaway
  • Amethyst, Inc.
  • Southeast, Inc.
  • She Has a Name

Key Sources

State Ohio
Type City
Population 747755
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