Montgomery County is the third-most populous county in Pennsylvania, and contains rural areas and cities considered suburbs of Philadelphia. Norristown is the county seat, and the city of approximately 32,000 residents is located about six miles northwest of Philadelphia. Prostitution and sex trafficking have been identified by residents and law enforcement as substantial problems throughout the county, including communities such as Norristown, Montgomery Township, King of Prussia, and Pottstown. The county appears to be a staging area for prostitution activity in the greater metro Philadelphia area, and police often see well over 100 online ads for sex in King of Prussia and nearby towns, such as Upper Merion, Wilmington, Princeton and Atlantic City.
In an effort to reduce commercial sex and related crimes, county law enforcement (often collaborating with state police and municipal police departments) has periodically conducted reverse stings to identify and apprehend sex buyers. For example, the Norristown Police Department and Pennsylvania State Police conducted a joint operation between the city’s West Main and Knox Streets in November 2012. As johns attempted to solicit sex from one of two undercover female state troopers, they were quickly arrested. The men, who ranged in age from 18 to 76, were charged with patronizing prostitutes, criminal solicitation and disorderly conduct. As per NPD policy, all arrestees had their names and photos posted on the department’s website. In October 2013, police and state troopers collaborated on a second operation, this time intercepting 11 sex buyers. According to NPD reports, the 2012 and 2013 operations were staged along the same street corners and intersections, as certain locations have been determined to be “high prostitution areas” by law enforcement.
In February 2014, law enforcement officials announced a plan to combat prostitution and sex trafficking in Montgomery County, featuring more aggressive enforcement (i.e., reverse stings) and more severe penalties (including increased fines and shaming) for sex buyers. Explaining the reasons for this focus, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferma said:
“We’re going to start aggressively going after those customers of this criminal activity in an effort to deter them from coming into our community and engaging in these acts. We’re letting people know that, whereas in the past they might have simply gotten a citation, we’re going to be making arrests and those arrests will be public and people will be charged criminally and there will be consequences for their actions if they engage in this activity… There are a number of different problems that we’ve identified, and law enforcement professionals who have come together to work on this have concluded that the best way, right now, for us to try to tackle it would be to go after the customers. I think if people know that there is a possibility that they will get more than a summary citation, that they will be arrested and it will be a public arrest… that may discourage them from coming in to the community in the first place.”
The plan included shaming: Arrest information, including photographs of offenders, will be released to the public. Prostitution and patronizing prostitutes are third-degree misdemeanors for first-time offenders and the maximum penalty upon conviction is up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Penalties increase for repeat offenders.
In late February, 2014, six men were arrested following a prostitution sting in King of Prussia. The operation targeted crimes relating to human trafficking and commercial sex in the county. The reverse sting happened on February 28th after police posted an online ad offering prostitution services. Officials said that over 300 text messages and phone calls were received by police in response to just one online ad. In June 2014, the Upper Merion Police Department and the Montgomery County Detective Bureau conducted a second web-based reverse sting in King of Prussia, resulting in the arrest of five johns. During the operation, two men allegedly attempted to rob the undercover female officer posing as a prostitute, officials said. The two men were charged with robbery and “other related offenses.” A year later, in late June 2015, a joint web-based reversal led by UMPD officers and the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office netted five johns in Kind of Prussia. Each of the men was arrested after responding to a decoy online advertisement and allegedly offering money in exchange for sexual acts. All of the offenders’ identities were again publicized in press.
Other tactics used within the county include sending “Dear John” letters to the homes of men who were seen speaking to prostituted women or repeatedly driving through areas known for prostitution (used in Norristown, beginning in 1998). At the time, NPD officers recorded the license plate numbers of these suspected johns and then mailed a letter of warning (notifying the reader that the car was seen idling in an area known for commercial sex sales) to the residence of the vehicle’s owner. It is unclear if this tactic is still used.
In November 2016, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office announced that six men were arrested for patronizing prostitution based in the King of Prussia. The men were caught after an undercover investigation placed an advertisement online offering prostitution services. Each of the men discussed a time and location for a meeting via “hundreds” of text messages and phone calls. The suspects then met an undercover officer, who was posing as a prostitute, before being arrested. The arrests were part of a “prostitution sting” that was organized by the Upper Merion Police Department and the Montgomery County Detective Bureau. The initiative has been underway since February 2014, when officials began to crack down on the human trafficking and commercial sex trade in Montgomery County hotels.
In February 2018, Montgomery County law enforcement participated in the 15th National Johns Suppression Initiative (NJSI). The NJSI’s are coordinated efforts to target sex buyers and reduce sex trafficking, conducted by a national coalition of law enforcement agencies. The coordinated operations collectively led to more than 630 arrests from Jan. 7 through Feb. 4 and included more than 30 law enforcement agencies across 16 states. The Montgomery County Detective Bureau reported that they arrested three sex buyers during their operation.
In the third annual Report on Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania (2018) by Villanova University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE Institute), it was reported that 10 people had been arrested and charged with violations of the state’s sex buying statute (§ 5902(e)) between the time since the state criminal code created separate offenses for buying and selling sex in 2014 through 2017. The report highlighted an initiative in Montgomery County to develop a demand-focused cooperative protocol for human trafficking cases, supported by a grant from the Office for Victims of Crime to the Salvation Army’s “New Day to Stop Trafficking” program.
- Montgomery County Detective Bureau
- Norristown Police Department
- Pennsylvania State Police
- Reverse Stings and Shaming:
- http://www.delcotimes.com/general-news/20140221/montco-da-declares-war-on-illegal-sex-trade-will-target-johns (2014)
- http://www.thereporteronline.com/general-news/20140221/montco-da-unveils-initiative-cracking-down-on-illegal-sex-trade (2014)
- http://www.timesherald.com/general-news/20140221/montgomery-county-district-attorney-unveils-crackdown-on-illegal-sex-trade (2014)
- http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2014/02/21/montco-setting-up-john-stings-to-cut-down-on-prostitution-in-county/ (2014)
- http://www.philly.com/philly/news/breaking/Sex_crimes_to_receive_more_attention_in_Montco__police_say.html (2014)
- http://www.dailylocal.com/general-news/20150626/chesco-men-caught-up-in-prostitution-sting (2015)
- http://6abc.com/news/5-arrested-in-undercover-prostitution-sting-in-montco/ (2015)
- “Norristown Prostitution Sweep Nets 6 Arrests”, Philadelphia Inquirer, September 12 1989.
- “37 Arrested Seeking Prostitutes”, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 13 2000.
- “News in Brief”, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 10 2000.
- “14 Men Arrested in Norristown Prostitution Sting”, Norristown Times Herald, October 17 2011.
- “Prostitution Sting Nabs 13 ‘Johns’”, Norristown Patch, November 8 2012.
- “11 Arrested in Prostitution Sting”, Pottstown Patch, October 16 2013.
- https://patch.com/pennsylvania/abington/six-men-arrested-montco-prostitution-sting (2016)
- http://6abc.com/news/6-men-charged-in-king-of-prussia-prostitution-sting/ (2016)
- https://www.cookcountysheriff.org/national-sex-trafficking-sting-nets-630-sex-buyers-pimps-traffickers/ (2018)
- https://cseinstitute.org/Report on Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania (2018)
- Neighborhood Action:
- Sex Trafficking in the Area:
- Background on Prostitution in the Area: