Mesa, AZ

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

Mesa is a city of approximately 510,000 residents, located 20 miles east of Phoenix in Maricopa County, Arizona. Among the problems associated with local prostitution have been the serial killing and serial rapes targeting trafficked girls and women involved in prostitution. For example, in 2011 a man was found guilty of raping two women offering prostitution, and murdering two others in Mesa. At least two cases of child sex trafficking have also been documented in the city. Prostitution and sex trafficking are regional problems, with numerous cases occurring in the nearby cities of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, and throughout Maricopa County.

In an effort to reduce local demand for commercial sex, the Mesa Police Department and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office began conducting reverse stings in the city in 1982. Spurred by complaints from community members of reported prostitution in some of the city’s massage parlors, the Mesa Police Department conducted several reverse sting operations within massage parlors between 2003 and 2010. In these efforts, officers have arrested prostituted women and replaced them with undercover female officers. As men arrive for their “appointments” and offer money to the decoy in exchange for sexual services, they are arrested by police.

While the names and identities of offenders up until 2013 were not typically made public, arrestees could be subject to SOAP (or Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution) orders, barring them from entering areas of the city known for prostitution activity. The neighboring city of Tempe currently imposes “order-out” restrictions on individuals repeatedly arrested for prostitution. Much like SOAP orders, city police may order a person to stay out of a specified place as a condition of his or her probation. Should he/she return to the area, he/she may be arrested and jailed for up to 30 days.

In December 2014, MPD officers conducted a web-based reverse sting targeting individuals attempting to purchase sex from minors. Police placed a decoy advertisement to a website known for commercial sex sales and arranged to meet the men who responded. Five male sex buyers were arrested as a result; all of the men’s names, arrest photos and other identifying information were released to the public. Each was charged with one count of child prostitution. A similar web-based reversal in April 2015 netted five sex buyers after they attempted to buy sex from MPD undercover officers posing as “teenage prostitutes.” All of the offenders’ names and arrest photos were again publicized in press. In 2016, a web-based operation resulted in the arrest of a man attempting to buy sex with a child.

In March 2018, 21 men were arrested as part of a Mesa police prostitution sting. Operation Rocket used officers and undercover detectives from various units within the department, who placed ads on websites commonly used by people seeking illegal sex acts. The men either solicited or brokered deals for various sex acts and were arrested when they showed up to the agreed-upon location, the department said.  The men, whose photos and identities were publicly released, ranged in age from 28 to 67 years old and all face charges related to soliciting prostitution.

In December 2018, Mesa police detectives posed as 16-year-old girls and advertised sexual services online. Among the five men arrested was a Catholic priest assigned to an east Mesa church. Police said the men came to a Mesa motel at a predetermined time to purchase sex; all of the men agreed to buy sex even after being told the person they would purchase sex with was a minor, and they were then arrested and charged with child prostitution.

In July 2019, twenty-five people in the Valley were arrested on child sex-trafficking charges in a multi-agency sting operation called Operation Summer Shield.  The arrests came after an undercover operation by the Tempe Police Department, the Mesa Police Department, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. The men arrested ranged in age from 19 to 63 years old, and they faced charges that include child sex trafficking, sexual abuse, luring of a minor for sexual exploitation, attempted sex conduct with a minor, furnishing harmful materials to a minor and possession of dangerous drugs. Undercover officers and detectives had placed ads on various websites and apps used by people interested in illegal sex acts with children. The suspects are named and pictured on a Tempe Police Department News release.

In March 2021, six men were arrested in “Operation Leather Mitt,” a web-based sting conducted by the Mesa Police Department in partnership with Homeland Security Investigations and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. In August 2021, another 18 men were arrested for paying to sexually abuse minors, and their photos displayed in news reports. In November 2021, 30 people were arrested in Operation “Deja Boo” that targeted sex buyers involved in child sex trafficking and those with the intent of luring minors for sexual exploitation. The Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler and Tempe police departments all participated, according to the Mesa Police Department.

In May 2022, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that an undercover operation targeting commercial sex and human trafficking led to 43 arrests. While most of the suspects were charged with prostitution, other counts stemming from the undercover “Spring Fling” operation include child sex trafficking, drugs, and misconduct involving weapons. In a press release, ICE said that the focus was on hotel prostitution and street prostitution enforcement, and the suspects were arrested when they allegedly solicited and/or brokered deals for various sex acts.  ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations collaborated with local police departments in Scottsdale, Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Gilbert, and Surprise, as well as the Arizona State University Police Department.

A large scale sex trafficking operation was conducted in the greater Phoenix area from January 30 through February 11, 2023, a time period with numerous large events occurring locally, including the Super Bowl, Waste Management Phoenix Open, the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction, and others. Officials announced that 48 felony arrests and 300 misdemeanor arrests were made, including 120 people who were sex buyers. During the operation, over 100 officers from over 20 local, state, and federal agencies targeted adults trying to pay for sex with minors, online predators, and street prostitution in areas including Phoenix, Glendale, Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe.

IT-Based Tactics

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. 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, MADes Moines, WAMcHenry County, ILNew York, NYPortland, ORSeattle, WATarrant 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.

Key Partners

Key Sources

Sex Buyer Arrest, Identity Disclosure:

Reverse Stings (Mode Unclear), Identity Disclosure:

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

IT-Based Tactics:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Child Endangerment:

  • “Woman with Child Faces Prostitution Charge”, East Valley Tribune, September 3, 2009.

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Arizona
Type City
Population 509475
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