King County, WA

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

King County is a county of approximately 2.3 million residents. Its largest city and county seat is Seattle, WA. Prostitution and sex trafficking have been documented as serious and longstanding problems in the county. These activities and their ancillary crimes have generated complaints to local law enforcement from residents and businesses. Additionally, King County has served as the operating base for a serial killer and several serial rapists who targeted prostituted women and girls. For example, in 1993, a Seattle postal worker was held on a $1 million bail after allegedly murdering and dismembering a prostituted woman in his residence. According to reports, he stabbed, choked, and shot the 28-year-old woman in his Queen Anne apartment after he allegedly caught her looking through his clothes and belongings for money. The offender additionally purchased an axe and a saw the following morning, which were used to cut off the victim’s head and one arm.

Among the more serious crimes associated with the county’s commercial sex market are child sex trafficking, child endangerment, and sex trafficking individuals living with developmental disabilities. For example, in 2014, King County Prosecutors reported that a Federal Way man had been sex trafficking two women living with developmental disabilities out of the home the three individuals shared. According to reports, one of the victims was “a 51-year-old woman whose handicap left her unable to tell time or recite the alphabet.” The offender admittedly “bought her children’s books and toys,” to “endear himself to the woman,” the detective said in court papers. He was also allegedly taking the 51-year-old woman’s disability payments meant to support her, in addition to the Social Security disability payments of the second victim, a 56-year-old woman also living with disabilities. According to police, he said he’d taken the women in out of “charity.” In court, the man admitted to sex trafficking the women and told the court that, “She [the 51-year-old woman] does not have the mental capacity of an adult, that she doesn’t know how old she is, that she can’t read or write, tell time, hold a job, and that she doesn’t know the alphabet.” He was arrested and charged with second-degree rape as well as two counts of promoting prostitution. He remains jailed on $700,000 bail.

Among the tactics used to combat sexual exploitation are those targeting consumer level demand for prostitution and sex trafficking. In an effort to identify and apprehend local sex buyers, the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) has implemented various demand reduction tactics such as street-level and web-based reverse sting operations. Street-level reverse sting operations have been conducted in the county since at least 1981, if not earlier. During these operations, sex buyers are apprehended by a decoy female officer after attempting to approach and solicit her for sex. The KCSO often conducts street-level reverse sting operations in coordination with local police departments. For example, in 1981, the KCSO conducted a street-level reverse sting with the Seattle Police Department that resulted in the arrest of 15 male sex buyers. The KCSO periodically assists with city-level efforts to curtail prostitution in Auburn, Bellevue, Des MoinesFederal Way, Issaquah, Kent, Kirkland, Lake Forest Park, Renton, SeaTac, Shoreline, and Tukwila. Additionally, the KCSO is the primary law enforcement presence in unincorporated areas.

Web-based reverse sting operations have also been conducted in the county. These are often large-scale operations resulting in the arrest of dozens of male sex buyers. Deputies post decoy ads on websites known for prostitution and sex trafficking and communicate with potential sex buyers and sex traffickers online, arranging a place and time to meet. Once sex buyers arrive to the predetermined location, they are apprehended by undercover police officers. These operations often occur at local motels and are conducted in coordination with local police departments. For example, in August 2017, the Bellevue Police Department and KCSO arrested more than 100 people in a large-scale reverse sting aimed at online prostitution and sex trafficking. Over seven days, dozens of sex buyers answered online ads posted by undercover detectives and exchanged text messages describing sex acts they expected to buy. Police called the investigation “Operation On Demand,” and sex buyers were arrested after appearing at a condominium and agreeing with undercover officers to exchange money for sex. In addition to the 110 arrests, 105 cars were impounded, along with two motorcycles, and one bicycle. Most of those arrested were expected to face misdemeanor prostitution charges, carrying a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

IT-Based Tactics

In 2017, a countywide effort to deter sex buyers through the use of chatbots was deployed. This IT-based tactic, created by the Seattle-based NGO, Seattle Against Slavery (SAS), was designed to raise awareness among men about the harms of buying sex online. The chatbot engages with online sex buyers through automated, but authentic-sounding, responses. After potential sex buyers begin interacting with the chatbot, it reveals its true identity along with information on the harms of prostitution.

IT-based tactics have been incorporated into the multi-site demand reduction operations coordinated by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. Since 2011, the Cook County (IL) Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) has been coordinating periodic reverse sting operations occurring simultaneously in multiple cities throughout the United States. The collaborative effort was initially called the “National Day of John Arrests,” and then in 2015 was renamed National Johns Suppression Initiative (NJSI). The coalition of agencies that participate in these coordinated enforcement efforts grew from eight to more than 100. The 19 NJSI operations from 2011 through 2021 have involved the collaboration of over 140 law enforcement agencies, and have collectively produced the arrests of more than 10,000 sex buyers. In February 2018 the NJSI partnered with Seattle Against Slavery to roll out its AI bot, Project Intercept, in six municipalities, including King County. Since August 2018, some of the NJSI operations have incorporated the use of decoy internet ads that connected to an AI bot, created by The bot interacts with sex buyers to the point where it sends a deterrence message warning of the legal and social dangers of prostitution and sex trafficking.

Initially, the Cook County Sheriff’s Police and eight other agencies utilized the bot, including the principle police departments and sheriff’s offices in Boston, MA; Des Moines, WA; McHenry County, IL; New York, NY; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Tarrant County, TX; and Upper Merion Township, PA. Across several subsequent NJSI operations, 18 cities and counties used the bots to combat demand.

The childsafe bot and other similar products can continuously scrape data or monitor “signal” from open source electronic communications, analyze the raw input, and flag messages as probably depicting a commercial sex offer or transaction. They also engage buyers in some form of interaction designed to deter individuals from attempting to purchase sex, at the present “point of purchase” moment as well as in the future. This approach seeks to disrupt (and ultimately collapse) commercial sex markets by reducing demand.

John School Programs

In addition to street-level and web-based reverse sting operations, there have been at least four known john school programs in King County. The first known john school in the county operated from 2006 to 2007, whereby sex buyers could avoid significant criminal charges if they paid a substantial enrollment fee, attended educational classes, and avoided re-arrest. The course, which included lectures from health professionals and formerly prostituted women, also addressed the growing presence of trafficking networks in the region. By discussing the long-term impacts of sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation on victims and their families, the program hoped to educate sex buyers about the potential consequences of purchasing commercial sex. The program was a one-day classroom experience modeled after the San Francisco First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP). Although the program was not renewed beyond its pilot period, in 2015, a similar john school was launched in Seattle. In 2019, the program was transferred from the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) to the Lantern Project, and modified. Its description may be found here.

Buyer Beware Program

In 2014, the King County Prosecutor’s Office launched a new initiative designed to reduce the demand for prostitution, change the attitudes and behaviors of men arrested for purchasing commercial sex, and eliminate cultural acceptance of sex buying. The Buyer Beware initiative is a partnership with eight police departments and city attorneys’ offices across King County that are shifting their emphasis to pursue sex buyers. The initiative is led by the Organization for Prostitution Survivors and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Participating community organizations include Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), Stolen Youth, and Seattle Against Slavery. Participating law enforcement agencies include the King County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments of Seattle, Des Moines, Kent, Federal Way, Bellevue, and Renton.

Buyer Beware brings together local prosecuting authorities, community service organizations, and survivors to implement a comprehensive strategy to reduce demand for commercial sex and facilitate exit from prostitution. The Buyer Beware program model emphasizes prosecuting sex buyers and connecting prostituted people to services. The original goal in 2014 was to reduce demand for commercial sex by 20% in two years.

The program’s approach is essentially the “Nordic Model” or “Equality Model” which decriminalizes selling sex and criminalizes the actions of pimps and buyers, rather than the actions of prostituted persons. This model can be accomplished without changing prostitution law by making discretionary decisions not to arrest and prosecute prostituted or trafficked persons, even if engaging in commercial sex remains illegal in state law and local ordinances. Additionally, the Buyer Beware program includes John Schools, neighborhood action, and public education. The key elements of the program are:

  • Referring sex buyers to “Stopping Sexual Exploitation,” a comprehensive intervention program.
  • Collecting fines from arrested sex buyers to fund services for prostituted people.
  • Reducing arrests and prosecutions of prostituted persons in favor of referral to services.
  • Expanding effective services to assist prostituted people exiting prostitution.
  • Forming an alliance of public and private employers committed to implementing policies and practices against sex buying.
  • Educating high school and college students on the harms of commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Conducting social media campaigns to educate young men on the harms of sex buying.
  • Changing cultural norms surrounding the purchase of sex by involving a variety of community sectors, such as public health, education, business, media, and criminal justice.

The program planned to launch an online public education tool where advertisements “pop up” when sex buyers input certain terms into search engines. Although the mechanism for deploying these advertisements was not disclosed, when implemented the advertisements would “link to information about prostitution-related penalties and services for men who need help to stop buying sex.”

Loss of Employment, Identity Disclosure

Loss of employment is another  consequence of buying sex in the county. For example, in August 2014, a deputy from the King County Sheriff’s Office was sentenced to 366 days in jail after pleading guilty to charges of promoting prostitution, theft, and drug dealing. The charges stemmed from a two-month long investigation that began when the KCSO discovered the deputy had been sex trafficking his wife through posting ads of her on, a website known for prostitution and sex trafficking. The deputy was initially placed on administrative leave but was later permanently fired as a result of his arrest. The offender had been a member of the KCSO for 19 years; his identity was included in reports by local media outlets.

In October 2017, a longtime morning show host at Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle, confirmed he was no longer employed with the station. The announcement came less than two months after the man was caught in a prostitution sting in Bellevue, WA. The man had been employed by the station for 23 years before being arrested in the undercover sting, “Operation On Demand.” According to a police report, the man had arrived at the condo and putt $160 on a bedside table in exchange for one half-hour of commercial sex.

In 2017, a tenured professor at the University of Washington was fired after sexually harassing employees and misusing university money. In 2016, a university investigation determined that the man had violated the school’s sexual harassment policies with two employees. A second investigation, conducted by the UW School of Medicine, concluded that he had misused university funds by asking an employee to do chores for him and soliciting a prostituted person. His termination came more than 18 months after the investigations ended

Other Demand Reduction Tactics

Other demand reduction tactics that have been implemented in the county include public education, neighborhood action, surveillance cameras, and SOAP Orders. Beginning in the late 1980s, arrested male sex buyers have been subject to SOAP (Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution) Orders, barring them from entering areas within the county historically associated with prostitution.

Key Sources

Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

John School:

Sex Buyer Arrests, Identity Disclosure:

IT-Based Tactics:

SOAP Orders:

Employment Loss, Identity Disclosure:

Community Service:

Public Education:

Cameras, Neighborhood Action:

Vehicle Seizure:

Background on Sex Trafficking in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Child Endangerment, Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

Local Prostitution Ordinances:

State Washington
Type County
Population 2326040
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