Hillsborough County, FL

Tactics Used

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

Hillsborough County is a county of roughly 1.2 million residents, located on the west coast of Florida. Tampa is the county’s seat and largest city.  Prostitution and child sex trafficking have been well-documented in the county for decades.  Associated problems include cases of child endangerment, such as leaving infants unattended in order to engage in prostitution.

Although the majority of Hillsborough County police efforts to combat prostitution have targeted prostituted women rather than their “clients,” officers have also incorporated strategies to apprehend and deter sex buyers. These tactics include web-based stings, reverse stings, auto seizure, and the creation of a john school.  For example, a web-based reverse sting was conducted  in September 2012, and apprehended 43 men soliciting sex from minors on the internet.  Officers and detectives – posing as children – entered online chat rooms and scheduled meetings with would-be offenders.

In June of 2019, a set of prostitution stings was completed that occurred throughout the county since January 1, and produced the arrest of 85 individuals. The undercover investigation started Jan. 1 and was called “Operation Trade Secrets.” The sting focused on hotels, motels, spas, massage parlors, strip clubs, adult bookstores and sex trade activities in Hillsborough County.  The Sheriff’s Office targeted “johns,” with undercover deputies soliciting for sex. But about half of the people arrested were women on charges of offering to commit prostitution.  The photos and other identifying information for the arrested individuals were included in news releases.  People were arrested in the communities of Brandon, Gibsonton, Ruskin, Seffner and Tampa. Some faced additional charges unrelated to human trafficking or prostitution, including possession of a controlled substance, lewd and lascivious behavior, possession of child pornography, practicing massage without a license, and child neglect. In July 2019, another set of stings (Operation Trade Secrets II) was launched, and when they were concluded in November 2019 had resulted in over 100 arrests.

Between December 7, 2020 and January 9, 2021, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office conducted “Operation Interception,” a set of investigations and stings intended to deter sex trafficking leading up to the 2021 Super Bowl in Tampa.  On January 11, 2021 the Sheriff’s Office  announced the arrests of 71 individual sex buyers during the undercover operation.

Hillsborough and neighboring Pinellas County launched joint john school programs (named Project HOPE) on a pilot basis in 2002.  A report on the program and an assessment of its performance is available HERE.  When reviewed by the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), the program was deemed beneficial but also criticized for uneven implementation at ground-level. It is critical to note, however, that the program’s assessment did not include a formal evaluation of its impact on recidivism.  The Governor of Florida vetoed funding  for Project Hope after two years, and the program was discontinued in 2004.  However, the county still is served by a john school in Tampa.

Key Sources

State Florida
Type County
Population 1170518
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