Lakeland, FL

Tactics Used

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

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 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.

Key Sources


State Florida
Type City
Population 92796
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