Hillsborough County, FL

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

Hillsborough County is a county of roughly 1.472 million residents, located on the west coast of Florida. Tampa, FL 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. The county has also had cases of prostitution-related homicide.  For example, in May, 2022 Hillsborough prosecutors announced they would  seek the death penalty for a man they’ve accused of committing two separate murders in 2021 in Tampa. The offender faced two counts of first-degree murder for the stabbing of two women were both homeless and had been in prostitution as a means of survival. Court records and testimony indicate that DNA and other evidence linked the man to both crimes. The offender was convicted of a prior felony (sex offenses), and that the killings were especially “heinous, atrocious or cruel.” A construction crew found one of the victims – a 54 year old woman – dead in an abandoned house that was set to be demolished on East Sligh Ave. A detective later testified that she had been stabbed close to 60 times.  Six weeks later, someone called 911 in the early morning to report that someone was lying on the ground, covered in blood, about two miles from where the first woman was murdered. A man was standing over her, who later admitted he’d paid the second woman for sex. Local sex trafficking operations have also revealed related crimes such as child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, often called “child pornography” in state laws).  For example, in June, 2019, the Hillsborough County Sheriff announced that they had arrested 85 people in a months-long human trafficking sting. “Operation Trade Secrets” began at the outset of the year, focusing on hotels, motels, spas, massage parlors, strip clubs, adult bookstores and other activities. One of the people arrested was a sex trafficker, while others face charges such as prostitution, “child pornography” and voyeurism.

Although the majority of Hillsborough County police efforts to combat prostitution have targeted prostituted women rather than sex buyers, 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, where officers posed as parents who were using online chatrooms to sexually exploit their children. Officers and detectives – posing as parents who were sexually exploiting their children – entered online chat rooms and scheduled meetings with would-be offenders. Upon arriving at the arranged location, officers arrested a total of 43 men on charges of Travel to Seduce, Solicit or Entice a Child to Commit Sexual Act and Use of a Computer to Seduce, Solicit or Entice a Child to Commit Sexual Act.

In June of 2019, a set of prostitution stings that had been occurring throughout the county since January 1 was completed, and produced the arrest of 85 individuals. The undercover investigation started Jan. 1, 2019, 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 sex buyers with undercover deputies soliciting for sex. But about half of the arrests were of prostituted women. Photos and other forms of identification for the arrested individuals were included in news releases. Offenders were arrested in the communities of Brandon, Gibsonton, Ruskin, Seffner and Tampa. A few offenders were also charged with additional offenses 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 concluded in November of 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.

Loss of employment is another consequence of buying sex that has occurred within the county. For example, one of the men arrested in December, 2020 in “Operation Interception,” was a Hillsborough County firefighter assigned to Station 7 in Brandon. He was arrested on a charge of soliciting another to commit prostitution. He was released from the county jail later the same day after posting $500. He had been hired as a Hillsborough County firefighter on July 13, 2020. He submitted his resignation from his position as a firefighter following his arrest, and is no longer employed with Hillsborough County. Similarly, in October 2021 a local teacher resigned after his arrest in a large scale reverse sting. In August, 2022, a detention deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office faced criminal charges after he tried to pay for sex with someone he thought was a minor. The off-duty deputy was arrested by the St. Petersburg Police Department. The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office release did not say where or how the incident occurred. The deputy, who joined HCSO in January, 2022, was initially suspended without pay.

Human trafficking and forced prostitution have been well-documented issues in the area and surrounding communities. For example, in October 2022, two men were arrested for sex trafficking eight Cuban immigrants. The women were smuggled into the United States and forced to work off their “debt” of $60,000 each by performing sex acts for money. Police officers performed a sting operation, claiming to be buyers when the arrests were made. The traffickers have since been charged with sexual battery, human smuggling, prostitution, and false imprisonment.

Overview of John School(s):

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 Hillsborough County still is served by a Tampa-based john school under the direction of the local non-profit Tampa Crossroads.

J.A.D.E. Program (“Johns” Awareness, Diversion, and Education).  Prior to 2004, Tampa Crossroads was responsible for Project H.O.P.E. in addition to two other john schools that they were and still are, operating: “Johns” Awareness, Diversion, and Education (J.A.D.E.). After Project HOPE was discontinued in 2004, Tampa Crossroads continued running the J.A.D.E. Program and as of July 1st, 2021, the program remains in operation. Currently, the Tampa-based program receives the majority of its participants through court referrals in Hillsborough County, FL, but accepts participants from outside counties as well. The program provides treatment and education for individuals, primarily men, who have been arrested for soliciting sex in Hillsborough County, FL. Sessions are held weekly, over the course of six weeks, on Wednesday evenings from 5-6pm. The program costs $350.00 and participants are responsible for paying program fees. Participant fees allow for therapeutic community programs for women and victims of sex trafficking to continue operating.

Key Sources

Assessment of “Johns School” Project HOPE:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

Reverse Stings:

Sex Buyer Employment Loss, Identity Disclosure:

Background on Local Prostitution, Sex Trafficking, Related Crimes (e.g., CSAM, child endangerment, drug offenses):

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

Sex Trafficking:

State Florida
Type County
Population 1472000
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