Philadelphia, 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

Philadelphia is a city of approximately 1.58 million residents, within Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. It is the state’s largest city, and the fifth largest city in the United States. Prostitution and commercial sex trafficking have posed formidable problems for the city, with activities frequently concentrated in the Kensington area.  Both street-level and indoor prostitution have generated community complaints and police activity. A wide range of additional crimes associated with the local sex trade have also been documented, including child sex trafficking and prostitution-related homicide, and serial killers who specifically target prostituted women have operated in the city.

To address such issues, Philadelphia police employ several tactics that target sex buyers in addition to prostituted women. In the early 1980s, police began conducting street-level reverse stings; operations are now routinely conducted, using teams of undercover female officers as decoys.  Once arrested, sex buyers may have their names and other identifying information made public. While it is unclear when the PPD first adopted a formal policy of “shaming”, media reports suggest city police are often reticent to release arrest information to the public. This may be due in part to a series of sting arrests in 2004, which were covered extensively by the Philadelphia Daily News. Arrestees had their names and mugshots published in the paper; when two of the men later had their charges dropped, they reported to other members of the press that the Daily News’s coverage had caused them significant emotional distress and left them without jobs. Since the incident, the PPD had not released comprehensive lists of offenders to the public, until the arrest of six buyers in June 2013. In October 2014, law enforcement took its shaming tactics a step further when it posted the names and mugshots of four men arrested during a reverse sting operation to the PPD’s Facebook page.

These reverse stings in 2013 appeared to have marked a renewed interest in combating demand in Philadelphia. Between January and October 2013, police reportedly arrested over 180 sex buyers in reverse stings.  This tactic is one of several strategies police have used to crack down on commercial sex locally. Police also have confiscated the vehicles of arrested sex buyers (and may also seize cash), requiring them to appeal the seizure before a judge if they want their belongings returned.  Vice officers arrested six men in one 3.5-hour reverse sting, and seized six vehicles and $2,000 in cash; if the suspects don’t appeal the seizures, the go into the District Attorney’s crime-forfeiture fund. A reverse sting later in September 2013 resulted in six arrests, and the seizure of $1,900 cash, several vehicles, and a bicycle. The identities of the men arrested were disclosed to news outlets.  A three-day reverse sting in October 2013, resulted in 17 arrested sex buyers, and the confiscation of over $4,000 and nine vehicles.  Additional examples include a reversal occurring in June 2013, resulting in the arrest of six sex buyers whose photos and other identifiers were publicly released.  In April and May of 2014, police conducted a series of reverse stings resulting in the arrest of 34 men charged with soliciting prostituted persons.  The men – who ranged in age from 23 to 71 years old – were arrested in a series of stings throughout the city that used “undercover decoy operations,” according to police.

The Philadelphia PD has partnered with the District Attorney’s Office to develop a john school, structured as a diversionary program and launched in 2014.  In the program, men convicted of patronizing a prostitute – a misdemeanor – attend a daylong class learning about sexually transmitted diseases and talking with commercial sex survivors about the addiction, poverty or other problems that drove them to buy sex.   The Sexual Education and Responsibility (SER) program had its inaugural class of 15 men complete a four-hour session May 10 at Joseph J. Peters Institute, a Center City clinic that specializes in treating sex offenders and the sexually abused.  The men completed the class, which costs $250, and were given a court date where they would plead guilty to misdemeanor patronizing and pay $203 in court costs. If their vehicles were impounded when they were arrested, they would get them back. First-time offenders may also get their arrest record expunged.

Before SER, men arrested for patronizing prostitution were eligible for the city’s major diversion program: Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (AMP), which disposes of minor criminal cases by having arrestees perform community service.

“Prostitution is definitely a quality-of-life issue, and targeting the johns is another way to attack it,” said Sgt. Joe Lanciano of the PDP’s vice unit. “We want to discourage the demand.  This is not a victimless crime.”

Employment loss is another consequence of buying sex that has occurred in the city.  For example, in July, 2009, Villanova University officials said that a former law school dean would not return to the faculty in the wake of his being linked to a prostitution ring. Villanova released a statement saying that at the same time the man resigned, he informed school officials of his connection with the investigation being conducted by Pennsylvania State Police. The university said it accepted his resignation. Less than a week after the abrupt resignation on June 29, when he cited personal and medical reasons, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the man was apparently patronizing prostituted women. Citing a report from the state police, the Inquirer reported that the man was one of two sex buyers who provided information that culminated in a no-contest plea by the man promoting the business. The Inquirer said the man was a “customer” at a Kennett Township house suspected as a site for prostitution when police raided it in November, 2008.  He was not charged. Citing the police report, the Inquirer said the man had paid a woman $170 for 35 minutes of sexual contact

Key Partners

  • Philadelphia Police Department
    • Citywide Vice Enforcement Unit
  • District Attorney’s Office
  • Sexual Education and Responsibility (john school program)
  • Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (community service)

Key Sources

John School:

Street-Level Reverse Stings; Identity Disclosure:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

Identity Disclosure:

Community Service:

Employment Loss:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Pennsylvania
Type City
Population 1582000
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