Philadelphia, PA

Tactics Used

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

Philadelphia is a city of approximately 1.5 million residents, comprising Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania. It is the state’s largest city, and the fifth largest city in the country. 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.

To address such issues, Philadelphia police employ several tactics that target johns 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, johns 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 6 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 johns arrested during a sting operation to the PPD’s Facebook page.

These reverse stings in 2013 appears to mark 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 are now using to crack down on commercial sex. Police also now confiscate the vehicles of 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 the six men in a 3.5 hour reverse sting, and seized six cars and $2,000 in cash; if the suspects don’t appeal the seizures, they’ll go into the District Attorney’s crime-forfeiture fund.  Similarly, a reverse sting in September 2013 resulted in six arrests, and the seizure of $1,900 cash, several cars, 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.  More recent 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 will plea guilty to misdemeanor patronizing and pay $203 in court costs. If their vehicles were impounded when they were arrested, they will get them back. And first-time offenders can 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.”

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

State Pennsylvania
Type City
Population 1449634
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