Lakeland is a city of approximately 95,000 residents, located between Tampa and Orlando in Polk County, Florida. Prostitution has been a persistent and visible problem in the area for decades. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office has adopted several tactics to identify and apprehend sex buyers in addition to sellers. Beginning in 1989, officers have incorporated the use of street-level reverse stings. Operations typically employ the use of an undercover female officer as a decoy. Johns attempting to solicit the decoy are then quickly arrested. Police routinely release arrestees’ names and other identifying information to the local media.
Lakeland’s street-level reverse stings have netted upwards of 80 johns in a single operation. The Lakeland Police Department and Polk County Sheriff’s Office have noted significant shifts in the city’s commercial sex market in recent years, as an increasing number of sex workers move their operations indoors and online. To address this, officers also conduct web-based reverse stings, postings decoy advertisements on sites such as Craigslist and Backpage.com. In 2012, three such operations resulted in the arrest of close to 100 johns. As in Lakeland’s street-level reverse stings, johns arrested for soliciting sex online may also have their names released to the public.
Lakeland has been one of the sites included in large scale operations throughout Polk County. For example, in December 2015 a web-based reverse sting, conducted by PCSO deputies in partnership with officers from the Lakeland Police Department, netted 33 johns. As with prior stings, the PCSO released a poster with the names and arrest photos of all of the individuals arrested, including alleged sex sellers. Media outlets reported that one individual arrested had brought her 2-year-old daughter to the sting. Law enforcement also indicated that those arrested ranged in age from “15 to 68,” suggesting that minors were also intercepted. PCSO deputies indicated that “at least three women [were identified] who they believe may have been forced into prostitution against their will.”
A much larger reverse sting was conducted in October 2017. Polk County deputies and officers from local police forces conducted a five-day reverse sting resulting in the arrest of more than 200 sex buyers . “Operation No Tricks, No Treats” began Oct. 10 and ran until Oct. 15, according to a press release from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. During the operation, undercover detectives and investigators from several law enforcement agencies posted false advertisements on websites, social media sites and phone apps posing as “prostitutes or to solicit sex workers.” Investigators reported 209 of those arrested were accused of soliciting undercover detectives. Another large-scale, web-based prostitution sting occurred in November, 2018 that produced over 100 arrests – 30 of which were for charges related to attempting to buy sex. In May 2019, a large-scale operation produced over 150 arrests for prostitution-related charges.
Penalties associated with a prostitution arrest include the public shaming that comes form having the sheriff and news outlets putting names and photos on their websites. For “johns” there is a $5,000.00 “civil penalty” required by statute, and other penalties include forfeiting any property seized (including vehicles), community service hours, and paying the cost of the investigation.
- Street-Level Reverse Stings:
- “41 Arrested in Prostitution Sting”, Lakeland Ledger, January 20 1988.
- “Sex Sting; Effort to Slow AIDS Prompts Arrest of ‘Johns'”, Lakeland Ledger, April 16 1989.
- “11 Charged in Lakeland Sex Sting”, Lakeland Ledger, July 9 1989.
- “Prostitution Crackdown; Sheriff’s Detectives Run Stings Near Lakeland”, Lakeland Ledger, March 6 1995.
- “Chaplain’s Arrest Surprises FSC”, Lakeland Ledger, April 29 1995.
- “50 Arrested on Drug, Prostitution Charges”, Lakeland Ledger, October 7 1995.
- “Prostitution Stings Bring 27 Arrests”, Lakeland Ledger, January 22 1998.
- “Sixteen Arrested in Prostitution Sting”, Lakeland Ledger, May 5 2004.
- “16 Arrested in ‘Reverse’ Prostitution Sting”, CBS/WTSP-TV 10, August 5 2011.
- “Four Arrested in Prostitution Sting at Saddle Park Creek in Lakeland”, Lakeland Ledger, November 2 2012.
- “10 Men Charged in Lakeland Prostitution Sting”, Tampa Bay Tribune, December 2 2012.
- Web-Based Reverse Stings:
- “Operation Naughty Not Nice Nets 95 in Polk County,” CBS/WTSP-TV 10, December 14 2015.
- “Polk County Prostitution Bust Leads to 95 Arrests,” NBC/WFLA-TV 8, December 14 2015.
- “Undercover PCSO/LPD Human Trafficking Operation Results in 95 Arrests,” Lakeland Ledger, December 14 2015.
- http://www.foxnews.com/florida-police-arrest-277-including-cops-and-doctors-in-sex-sting.html (2017)
- https://www.newschief.com/more-than-100-arrested-in-polk-county-human-trafficking-investigation (2018)
- https://www.wptv.com/more-than-100-suspects-arrested-human-trafficking-investigation polk-county (2018)
- https://www.wtsp.com/article/more-than-150-arrested-in-child-porn-prostitution-sting-in-polk-county (2019)
- http://www.fox13news.com/news/local-news/polk-county-detectives-arrest-153-in-sex-related-charges (2019)
- Neighborhood Action:
- Community Service:
- Auto Seizure:
- Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:
- “Prostitution Ring Reported Broken”, St. Petersburg Times, May 16 1974.
- “Prostitution Ring Investigated”, Lakeland Ledger, April 11 1975.
- “Man Charged with Pimping”, Lakeland Ledger, April 4 1978.
- “Girl Faces Prostitution Charge”, Lakeland Ledger, October 3 1979.
- “Prostitution Arrests Made at Hotel”, Lakeland Ledger, September 5 1980.
- “9 Taken as Deputies Have Good Night at Days Inn”, Lakeland Ledger, December 12 1980.
- “Woman, Juvenile, Man Arrested Sunday on Prostitution Charges”, Lakeland Ledger, September 23 1985.
- “Indictment Charges 11 in Statewide Prostitution Ring”, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 18 2005.
- “Lake City Man Sentenced to 16 Years for Sex Trafficking,” WJXT-TV 4, October 20 2015.
- Background on Prostitution in the Area:
- “Four Charged with Prostitution”, Lakeland Ledger, July 3 1977.
- “66 Arrested in Prostitution Stings”, Lakeland Ledger, December 12 2006.
- Documented Violence against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:
- “Woman Raped by Man Claiming to Be Officer”, Lakeland Ledger, November 12 1992.
- “Man Accused in 4 Attacks; Panel Declares Suspect Fit for Trial”, Lakeland Ledger, November 21 1996.
- “Attacks”, Lakeland Ledger, November 21 1996.
- “Man Guilty of Raping Prostitute”, Lakeland Ledger, January 5 2001.
- “Woman Testifies Against Rapist; Man Convicted in January of Raping a Prostitute Defends Against New Counts”, Lakeland Ledger, February 7 2001.