Milwaukee County, WI

Tactics Used

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

Milwaukee County is the most populous county in Wisconsin and the 45th most populous in the United States, with a population of approximately one million. Over half of the population (595,000) reside in the city of Milwaukee, which abuts Lake Michigan.  The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office often collaborates with municipal Police Departments, including Glendale, Wauwatosa, and Milwaukee.  Wauwatosa is a suburban city abutting Milwaukee to the west,  and has a population of roughly 46,000.  Glendale is a city in Milwaukee County with roughly 13,000 residents, situated directly north of Milwaukee, near Lake Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

Prostitution and sex trafficking have been identified as serious local problems for decades. Related problems have included homicides and shootings of prostituted women, and pimps using trafficked children to rob johns.  The first known local prostitution arrests were made in 1974. In one trafficking case, a pimp was arrested for soliciting women to work as prostitutes, coaching them on getting johns drunk, avoiding police, and stealing customers’ credit cards. He then took her to clubs around Milwaukee and Chicago to “practice.” One Milwaukee woman who had been trafficked was found to have several aliases, and had been arrested for prostitution in Illinois, Nevada, Washington D.C. and Hawaii. In another case, a man investigated for serial rape was arrested for soliciting a prostitute.

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. The Milwaukee Police Department began conducting street-level reverse stings as early as 1976, making the department among the first in the U.S. to specifically target demand for commercial sex.  Since 1990, police within the county have been able to impound arrestees’ vehicles, depending upon the circumstances of the case. As a warning to other would-be sex buyers, officers may also release offenders’ names and other identifying information to the local media.  Officials may seek to identify and apprehend sex buyers by instituting internet surveillance and encouraging city residents to engage in neighborhood watch programs. Milwaukee residents have created several neighborhood organizations that encourage self-policing (such as Merrill Park’s “Residents Against Prostitution”) and continue to report suspicious activities to police and government officials.

In 2010, four men were arrested after unknowingly making arrangements to meet a Wauwatosa police officer for paid sex at a local hotel. The department’s Special Operations Group determined that their efforts prove more successful if target the clients as well as the prostitutes and pimps. In most cases people arrested for soliciting a prostitute end up in the local municipal court and, if found guilty, pay a fine, but lack of cooperation, a prior arrest record or involvement in other crimes could bring more substantial penalties. During a reverse sting in July 2010, officers placed online ads for commercial sex, and in a short time, they were fielding calls and setting up morning and lunch-hour appointments at local hotels.

In June 2012, to address growing concerns following reports of minors involved in the city’s commercial sex market, the Milwaukee Police Department participated in the FBI’s Operation Cross Country VI, a three-day nationwide sweep targeting those suspected of engaging in the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. Milwaukee area officers and federal agents recovered a total of 7 children in the local area– the highest number of any participating city– suggesting that sex trafficking networks may pose substantial problems for the city in coming years. In July 2013, a similar FBI operation recovered 10 underage victims of prostitution. In mid-2013, the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office expressed a renewed commitment to attacking demand in an effort to reduce the impact of commercial sex in the city. They arrested 65 johns from August to October, 2013, and reported that they planned to “shame” alleged buyers by releasing their information and mug shots to the public, and towing their cars. In addition, the city has been investigating whether johns will get “alternative treatment and education,” which may mean a john school is in their plans. Since the initiative began in late August 2013, officials report seeing a decrease of 10% in street robberies.

In October, 2013, a news conference by the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office detailed a new initiative using a multi-layered plan to fight prostitution on Milwaukee’s south side that addresses not only prostitution, but also their pimps and “johns.”  The “johns” are booked into county jail facilities; their mug shots posted online and distributed to media outlets; and their vehicles also are towed when they get arrested, resulting in an immediate financial penalty, usually at least $100. Investigators also gather intelligence on pimps who are suspected of human trafficking and will collaborate with the state Department of Justice’s Criminal Investigation Division on those charges.  Prostitutes are being screened to determine if they are addicted to drugs, have been trafficked or suffered from domestic abuse, and are referred to local agencies for services. Many also are receiving deferred prosecution agreements, even on municipal violations, as long as they are in treatment.


Key Partners

  • Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office
  • Milwaukee Police Department
  • Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office
  • Wisconsin Department of Justice
  • Wauwatosa Police Department
  • Glendale Police Department

Key Sources

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

SOAP Orders:

Auto Seizure:


Neighborhood Action:

Background on sex trafficking, prostitution, and related violence in the area:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Documented Violence against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Wisconsin
Type County
Population 952085
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