Phoenix, AZ

Tactics Used

Auto Seizure
Buyer Arrests
Cameras
Community Service
Employment Loss
Identity Disclosure
IT Based Tactics
John School
Letters
License Suspension
Neighborhood Action
Public Education
Reverse Stings
SOAP Orders
Web Stings

Phoenix is the largest commercial hub of and most populous city in Arizona, with approximately 1.625 million residents. It is the sixth largest city in the country, and serves as the county seat of Maricopa County. Situated within a day’s drive from the Mexican border and at the crossroads of several interstate highways, the Phoenix area has been identified as one of the largest hubs for human trafficking networks in the U.S  by state and federal law enforcement agencies, and by victims’ advocacy groups. The Phoenix Police Department and Maricopa County partners recognize the serious consequences of prostitution for the community as well as the presence of  sex trafficking and related crimes locally. Multiple serial killers targeting sexually exploited women have also been active in the city.  While some local residents continue to view prostitution as a quality of life issue, many in the community were compelled to demand reform following the 2005 discovery of a 15-year-old girl who had been kept locked inside a dog crate by her pimp, and in June 2013, a 15-year-old girl was recruited and sex trafficked by a pimp using online ads for prostitution.  In June, 2021, an Apache Junction man was arrested and  charges for allegedly trying to find a trafficked teenage girl to rape and kill, but Phoenix Police Human Exploitation and Trafficking detectives were able to stop him before he could carry out his plot. Phoenix Police found out about the plan through a welfare check on a woman with a known history of prostitution, who shared details about the man’s plans. The 69-year-old man was making plans with the prostituted woman, whom he had contacted previously.  The man hoped the woman could facilitate either her taking a young girl between the age of 14 and 16 and having him come to that location to meet this young girl. Police conducted observations of calls between the prostituted woman and the suspect, in which the suspect said he was going to pay her to help him find a teenage girl. Their investigation found that the man had a plan to dispose of the teen’s body, and had bought items they later found in his car to make sure he could tie this person up, and that he he also possessed a handgun. The man was charged with child sex trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder and attempted sexual contact with a minor.

Phoenix police have engaged in an aggressive and multi-pronged approach to curtail commercial sex in the city. Officers have conducted frequent and large-scale street-level reverse stings since the mid-1980s; operations typically employ one or more undercover female officers, who pose as decoys along one of the city’s major thoroughfares. As men attempt to purchase sex from the women, they are intercepted by police. If a sex buyer solicited the officer from a vehicle, he may have his car seized and impounded for 30 days. He may also be issued SOAP (or “Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution”) orders, barring him from reentering areas of the city known for commercial sex sales.

The PPD had reported an increase in listings for sexual services on websites like Craigslist through about 2010, Backpage.com up to 2018, and more recently, many other sites dedicated to sexual commerce (e.g., worldsexguide, erotic review, skipthegames, seeking arrangements).  To address the issue, officers and detectives have implemented surveillance checks of sites suspected of illegal activity, and have conducted several long-term web stings. One such investigation, undertaken in early 2011, targeted sex buyers seeking to purchase sex from a minor online. Officers posed as an underage girl sold for sexual abuse; as they received replies, they arranged to meet the men at a local hotel. Eight child sexual abusers were arrested as a result. As a warning to other individuals attempting to prey on minors, police released the men’s names and other identifying information to the media. As per department policy, the list of arrestees was also posted to the PPD’s official website.

More recent examples of large scale, web-based reverse stings include one in February 2021 that resulted in the arrest of 34 individuals, whose identities were publicized, for buying sex with minors. In May 2021, forty-seven men were arrested after allegedly soliciting sex from undercover police officers posing as massage workers in Phoenix. Officers in the Cactus Park Precinct set up a decoy storefront that provided illicit massages. Detectives promoted the fake business by placing advertisements on websites, applications, and local media commonly seen by people looking for illegal commercial sex acts. When the men showed up at the store as arranged, and would try to make deals for various sex acts with undercover officers, they were arrested.  Forty four of the 47 men arrested were taken to the Maricopa County Jail, while the remaining three suspects received citations and were released. The mug shots and identifiers for the arrested sex buyers were posted by Phoenix Police and distributed by local news outlets.

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. In February, 2022, Phoenix police and several partner agencies made 118 prostitution-related arrests for charges including prostitution, luring, pandering, escort service violations and warrants. The investigations and arrests happened over three days in January and three days in February, 2022. One of the arrests was for an outstanding felony arrest warrant for homicide. During the stings, the Phoenix Police Department’s Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit worked alongside human trafficking units from the Scottsdale, Glendale, Mesa and Tempe police departments as well as Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI. 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. In October, 2022, 16 male sex buyers were arrested in a web based reverse sting targeting those seeking to purchase minors for sexual abuse.

Phoenix law enforcement may offer alternatives for first time offenders. In the 2005-2012 period, those without a prior record could enroll in a “john school” program. The eight hour course, which costs $827 and was led by Catholic Charities, included presentations from vice investigators, health care workers, community representatives, psychologists, and former prostituted women. In exchange for attending, the men could have their cases dismissed and avoid jail time. Since its inception, roughly 1,000 male sex buyers had enrolled in and completed the course.

In mid-2015, Phoenix city officials, in partnership with the CEASE (Cities Empowered Against Sex Trafficking) Network, launched a public awareness campaign targeting sex buyers, particularly those who would solicit minors for acts of prostitution. According to media outlets, the initiative “includes a website in English and Spanish, brochures and posters that will be displayed in local businesses in areas with a high incidence of prostitution arrests, according to a statement from the city of Phoenix. The campaign will also include radio public service announcements and billboard messaging along major transportation routes.” An accompanying website has also been launched at NotWorthIt.org.  As of 2022, the “Arizona Buyer Beware” program has posted a website meant to deter sex buyers. Arrested buyers may be referred to the site, and it is also available for broader public education purposes. The website contains information about the harms of commercial sex and sex trafficking, and warns buyers that continuing that behavior increases their risk of being arrested and having their identities publicly disclosed.

In June 2018, the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that imposes new fees for soliciting prostitution on offenders who have been convicted more than once. Resources collected from the fines will be used to benefit victims. Under the amended city code, a $2,000 fee will be imposed for a second conviction, $2,250 for a third conviction, and $2,500 for each subsequent conviction. The fees imposed on convicted offenders will be directed toward the newly established City of Phoenix Anti-Human Trafficking Fund that will benefit “Starfish Place,” a long-term housing project for victims of human trafficking that opened in 2017.

Not all sex buyers in Phoenix have been arrested during proactive reverse stings using police decoys, but some have instead been the result of investigating allegations of offenses against real victims. For example, in February 2015, a former NFL player was fired from his job as an analyst for the NFL Network, headquartered in Atlanta, several days after being arrested while in Phoenix to cover that year’s Super Bowl. He was booked on one count of soliciting prostitution and two counts of assault, both misdemeanor offenses, according to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. According to a statement released by the Phoenix Police Department, officers working security at a downtown Phoenix hotel were investigating a noise disturbance when they were contacted by a woman alleging she had been assaulted. The incident occurred in a guest room at the hotel where an argument ensued over money. The altercation allegedly turned physical, spilling out into the hallway. The sex buyer was arrested and then transported to Phoenix Police Headquarters, where he admitted involvement in the act of prostitution, but denied assaulting the woman.

In November 2020, officials with the Arizona Department of Public Safety arrested two people for allegedly forcing a West Valley teen to become exploited in prostitution. DPS officials say the investigation began in October, when a detective with the Arizona State Gang Task Force saw a young female who appeared to be working with prostituted women on a street in West Phoenix. The female was seen speaking with a driver through a car window, and then enter the car and leave the area. The driver of the car was arrested and accused of taking a child for prostitution. During the investigative stop, the detective learned the man was going to pay the female to have sex with him. The detective also learned the female was a 15-year-old runaway from Glendale, and was being forced to “work as a prostitute” for an unknown man. The unknown man was later identified, and the teen was required to provide him with $3,000 per night. It was later discovered that the teen was held at the man’s apartment against her will, and was also assaulted and forced to have sex with him. Another woman was also present at the apartment, and would help prostitute the victim, and force her to sell drugs. Both of the traffickers were accused of taking a child for prostitution, child sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a minor, kidnapping, sexual assault and sexual abuse.

Employment loss is another consequence of purchasing sex that has occurred in the city. For example, in 2014, a local high school teacher and church leader was caught trying to buy sex with a minor in a web-based reverse sting. After the arrest and publicity, he lost his position in the church, as well as contact with his family and his job as a teacher at Betty H. Fairfax High School in Phoenix. In September, 2022, a Phoenix Police Department officer working out of the South Mountain Precinct in an administrative job was arrested and charged with soliciting prostitution.  He was accused of paying a woman $100 for sexual intercourse at a hotel in Phoenix , and was arrested and booked into jail. He was then released from jail and resigned from the Phoenix Police Department. His identity was disclosed to the public.

Key Partners

  • Phoenix Police Department
  • City of Phoenix Prosecutor’s Office
  • Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office
  • Catholic Charities of Arizona
    • John School Program
    • Developing Individual Growth and New Independence Through Yourself (DIGNITY) Program
  • FBI
  • CEASE (Cities Empowered Against Sex Trafficking) Network
  • Arizona Department of Pubic Safety

 

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey, Interview and Site Visit

John School:

Reverse Stings (Mode Unclear):

Reverse Stings (Web-Based, with Decoy Brothel):

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Sex Buyer Arrest, Identity Disclosure:

Employment Loss, Identity Disclosure:

Auto Seizure:

Public Education; Buyer Beware Program:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Local Prostitution-Related Violence, CSAM:

State Arizona
Type City
Population 1625000
Location
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