King County, WA

Tactics Used

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

King County is a county of approximately 1.9 million residents, containing the Seattle metropolitan area and its neighboring cities and towns in the state of Washington.  The county has documented serious and longstanding problems with prostitution and sex trafficking, including the forced prostitution of minors. In addition, the area has served as the operating base for a serial killer and multiple serial rapists who specifically targeted prostituted women and girls.

In addition to periodically assisting with city-level efforts to curtail prostitution in Auburn, Bellevue, Des MoinesFederal Way, Issaquah, Kent, Kirkland, Lake Forest Park, Renton, SeaTac, Shoreline, and Tukwila, the King County Sheriff’s Office is the primary law enforcement presence in unincorporated areas. As such, it conducts frequent reverse stings in these areas (as well as undisclosed locations within the county). It has done so since at least 1982. Operations typically utilize an undercover female officer, who poses as a decoy. When men attempt to solicit sex from her, they are apprehended by KCSO police.

Once arrested, johns may be subject to SOAP orders, barring them from entering areas within the county historically associated with prostitution. From 2006 to 2007, the county operated a john school, whereby sex buyers could avoid significant criminal charges if they paid a substantial enrollment fee, attended educational classes, and avoided being arrested again.  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, Seattle launched a similar “john school” in 2009.  In 2015, a second program (Stopping Sexual Exploitation) in Seattle began operating, using a ten-week format rather than a one-day class.

In recent years, the KCSO was confronted with a challenge in 2008, when they were forced to eliminate their Vice Unit due to budget cuts. In spite of this, the county continues to take an active approach to reducing demand for prostitution, albeit through different channels. In October 2014, the King County Prosecutor’s Office launched a program to “crack down on men who sexually exploit others.” The initiative, known locally as Buyer Beware, involves several local law enforcement agencies (including the Seattle Police Department). As a group, this coalition prioritized the arrest of sex buyers over prostituted women with the intent of “curbing demand by 20 percent over the next two years.”

As part of Buyer Beware, johns convicted in King County will also reportedly be required to “take intervention courses similar to programs required of domestic-violence offenders.” Described as “a new eight-week course for convicted sex buyers” the course “is designed to be part of the offender’s sentence, not a way to avoid prosecution like some similar programs.” Through October 2014, it was unclear if the course would be administered through Seattle’s current john school program operated by the Department of Public Health, or offered through another platform. By the end of 2015 that had been resolved, when a second program was launched in Seattle that is intended to address the belief systems motivating sex buyers. “Stopping Sexual Exploitation: a Program for Men” was developed and implemented by Peter Qualliotine, the co-founder of the Seattle-based “Organization for Prostitution Survivors” (OPS). The program a ten-week “transformative justice” intervention for court and self-referred sex buyers. The program includes 10 weekly sessions: Two individual 60-minute sessions before participation in the group, and then eight weekly group sessions of 2.5 hours each. The feel of $90 per session is paid by the buyers, and the proceeds support survivor services. Exercises and group discussions engage participants in a process of-self reflection and critical analysis. The program consists of the following topics or components:

  • Sexuality and Gender Socialization
  • Harm to Victim/Survivors
  • The Sexual Violence Continuum
  • Pimping, Trafficking and Domestic Violence
  • Power and Violence
  • Vulnerability
  • Mutuality in Relationships
  • The Will to Change

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

In August of 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 buyers were arrested after appearing at a condominium and agreeing with undercover officers to exchange money for sex.  Bellevue Police said they were probably getting several dozen hits on several ads at any one time, and that prospective sex buyers were circling the address of the decoy brothel. 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.  The operation was a continuation of efforts in 2016 to dismantle a large human trafficking ring in Bellevue, and drawing buyers from throughout King County and beyond.

Key Sources

National Survey Assessment and Interviews

John School:

Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

SOAP Orders:

Public Education:

Vehicle Seizure:

Sex Trafficking in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Washington
Type County
Population 1850714
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