Grand Rapids, MI

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

Grand Rapids, Michigan has a population of approximately 200,000 and serves as the government seat of Kent County. The city and surrounding areas have had well-documented problems with prostitution and sex trafficking, spanning decades and resulting in complaints to law enforcement. Problems related to the local commercial sex market include cases of drugs involved in prostitution, attempted sex trafficking through violence and assault, child sex trafficking, rape of a minor with a learning disability, and the murder of a sex buyer by a pimp. There has also been at least one serial killer who targeted Grand Rapids women engaged in prostitution, and other cases of murder and rape of victims of commercial sex. In one example, a man convicted of murdering a teenage girl escaped from prison and while on the run murdered two additional people and raped at least three prostituted women.

The city is one of the pioneers in U.S. efforts to combat demand for commercial sex. The Grand Rapids Police Department was among the first in the nation to conduct reverse sting operations, using female police officers as decoys to arrest male sex buyers as early as 1967, if not before. Grand Rapids established the country’s first “john school” program in 1981, and in 1991 established the only systematic “after care” option for john school graduates. Local officials were also among the first in the nation to require that individuals convicted of solicitation complete community service as part of their sentencing. Although the identities of arrested sex buyers were not routinely released following early sting operations, local media outlets carried the names, ages, and arrest photos of three sex buyers picked up during a street-level reversal in July 2015.

Not all sex buyer arrests have been the result of sting operations using police decoys, but some have instead been the result of observations of suspicious activity made during patrols or through the investigation of allegations of offenses against real victims. For example, in March 2009, a man was caught in a sex act with a prostituted person and was arrested. He was cited and in June 2009 he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense of gross indecency and lewd and lascivious conduct. Police alleged that they saw a prostituted person performing an indecent act with a man inside a vehicle. The gross indecency charge was dismissed as part of a plea agreement. His identity was included in news reports.

Employment loss is another consequence of sex buying that has occurred in the city. For example, in 1996 a former Grand Rapids police officer was sentenced to 90 days in jail after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor soliciting and accosting charges. He had been accused of ordering a woman known to be engaged in prostitution to perform a sex act in his police cruiser, after which he resigned. Later that year another officer pleaded guilty to misdemeanor solicitation after being accused of soliciting a prostituted woman while off duty and trying to rob her, after which he was fired.

The John Group

Grand Rapids’ John Group was established long before the term “john school” was coined to describe efforts to prevent or deter arrested sex buyers from reoffending through education or counseling programming. The phrase “john school,” coined by a reporter in the late 1990s writing about San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP), has since become a generic term. The John Group in Grand Rapids was established 14 years before the FOPP was launched.

Unlike many subsequent john school programs, the John Group was structured as a condition of a sentence, and not a diversion program. Participation was not voluntary, and completion of the program did not result in charges being dismissed. Offenders convicted of soliciting could be sentenced to serve a term of probation involving participation in the John Group as well as other sanctions and rehabilitation and/or restitution efforts, such as community service and auto seizure. John Group participants were required to pay a fee of $100 to cover court costs and $50 for a therapist to run the sessions.

The program was composed of four group counseling sessions, plus one individual session at the end of the series. The time spent in the John Group typically ran between six and seven hours across all five sessions. Elements of the curriculum included:

  • Health risks
  • Health screening/tests
  • Legal consequences of soliciting
  • Impact on survivors
  • Impact on communities
  • Healthy relationships
  • Sexual addiction

The Department of Public Health or Planned Parenthood provided the health education materials. Partners from organizations were available to discuss with the group issues of sexual addiction and healthy relationships. Survivors of commercial sex discussed the impact that prostitution had on them, as well as the dangers men faced when buying sex. Other content was delivered by the probation officer managing the program. Between 1981 and 2008, over 700 men participated in the program.

An independent organization developed a form of program “after care” for men completing the John Group. The Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill in 1991 launched a set of group counseling sessions into which the courts could decide to route arrested sex buyers after the John Group; men could also participate voluntarily. Participants attended three individual sessions, then 16 weekly group counseling sessions. The topics covered were essentially the same as those in the john group, but others might have also been covered since the group counseling format was flexible and men might have brought up topics on which to work.

Community Service

Judges have discretion on how many hours of community service were required, and what the men were required to do during those hours. A common activity was sweeping and cleaning the very streets where the men were arrested for trying to buy sex (a requirement similar to one in the Red Zone Program in Indianapolis).

Neighborhood Action

Residents and community members have sometimes assisted in combatting demand in their neighborhoods. For example, one woman patrolled her neighborhood for several years confronting prostituted women and pimps, and following sex buyers in their cars and calling the police. She said her goal was just to make them uneasy and let them know someone was watching.

Key Partners

  • Grand Rapids Police Department
  • 61st District Court’s Probation Department
  • Department of Public Health
  • Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill
  • Men’s Resource Center of Western Michigan
  • Human Resource Associates
  • Planned Parenthood
  • Sacred Beginnings
  • Survivors of commercial sex (presenters in john school program)

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey and Interviews

Grand Rapids Police Department Annual Reports

John School:

Street-Level Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Sex Buyer Arrests, Identity Disclosure:

Community Service:

Neighborhood Action:

Employment Loss:

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 Michigan
Type City
Population 199417
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