Lehigh County, PA

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

Lehigh County is located in the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania. Its population is about 376,000, and its county seat is Allentown, the state’s third-largest city behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Prostitution activity have been well-documented in the communities and unincorporated areas of the county for decades. This activity and the problems and ancillary crimes it generates result in complaints to law enforcement agencies from residents and businesses. For example, in Hanover Township, located near Bethlehem in Lehigh County, residents and local law enforcement have reported an increase in prostitution activity in recent years. The Colonial Regional Police Department (CRPD) received complaints about prostitution occurring in at least seven hotels in the township between 2010 and 2011. In response, the CRPD collaborated with the Bethlehem Township Police Department to conduct a web sting targeting sex buyers in February 2012. The operation was the first of its kind in the township, though police had conducted five prior web stings targeting prostituted women. Prostitution related violence within the county is also well documented. For example, in June 2019, a man arranged to meet with a prostituted woman at an Upper Saucon Township motel, but was beaten and robbed of his phone, wallet, and vehicle by the alleged “service provider and her male companion.”

Consumer-level demand provides the revenue stream for all prostitution and sex trafficking, and has therefore been targeted by local law enforcement agencies as a strategy for prevention and response. For example, Allentown was identified by police to be on a “pimp circuit” in the 1970s and 1980s, what would now be called a domestic trafficking network. Other cities on the circuit included Harrisburg, Reading, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton, and the network extended into upstate New York. Allentown sex trafficking cases continue to be investigated and arrests made. For example, a private club was investigated in 2013, resulting in numerous arrests for prostitution and related offenses. Efforts to reduce local prostitution and sex trafficking have included efforts to combat demand. In the 1970s, city law enforcement were among the first in the nation to target underlying demand for prostitution, conducting their reverse sting in 1977. Scores of reverse stings yielding hundreds of arrests have followed. The identities of arrested sex buyers were and continue to be released to the media. The city began sending “Dear John” letters to the homes of arrestees in 1988. The letters warned of health risks associated with engaging in prostitution.

In Bethlehem (a city located near Allentown and occupying both Lehigh and Northampton Counties), prostitution and sex trafficking cases have been reported in the area for years. To address mounting complaints from residents, the Bethlehem Police Department began conducting street-level reverse stings in 1985. A series of operations was carried out in the 1990s, at times arresting as many as 16 sex buyers in a single evening. Police have at times released arrestees’ names and other identifying information to the local media. Police have posted decoy advertisements online and arranged to meet those who responded to the listing at a local hotel. In one operation, five male sex buyers were arrested in just under six hours. In December 2012, a second sting was conducted with similar success– 8 were arrested. In April 2013, the CRPD conducted a “combination” web sting, resulting in the arrest of 10 male buyers (and 6 prostituted women). In the days after each operation, arrestees’ names and other identifying information were publicized in local media outlets. In June 2013, a man was arrested for soliciting an undercover officer; it is not clear whether this was during a reverse sting, or more of an opportunistic arrest.

In the spring of 2016, a report was released by the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. The report presented county-level data on arrests for purchasing sex in Pennsylvania (the state has separate statutes for buying versus selling sex) during calendar years 2014-2015. The report’s data came from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, and during 2014-2015 there were 9 arrests in Lehigh County that were charged under the statute for purchasing sex (18 Pa.C.S. § 5902(e)). It is important to note that there may have been larger numbers of sex buyer arrests, since some cities and counties choose to handle such cases by issuing civil citations for violating local prostitution ordinances rather than charging with violating state criminal law.

Key Partners

  • Colonial Regional Police Department (CRPD)
  • Bethlehem Township Police Department
  • Hanover Township Police Department
  • Allentown Police Department

Key Sources

Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Background on Sex Trafficking and Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence Among Those Engaged in Prostitution:

State Pennsylvania
Type County
Population 375539
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