Polk County, FL

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

Polk County is an area that contains over 750,000 residents, and is located in central Florida. It contains the cities of Auburndale, Lakeland, Winter Haven, Inwood, Lake Wales and Davenport. Prostitution has been identified by police and others as a local concern, and there have been cases of sex trafficking, child endangerment, and prostitution-related child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) in the area. For example, in May, 2019, a resident of Lakeland agreed to travel to meet with an undercover detective where they further discussed her engaging in sex in exchange for $100. Subsequent to her arrest, a search of her car revealed a 9-yr old boy along with a male companion. The woman stated the man lived in the same hotel as her, but the boy was not familiar with him. DCF was contacted and responded to the scene and took custody of the child. The woman was charged with Child Endangerment (F3) and Offering to Commit Prostitution (M1). Violence involved in the local commercial sex market has also been well documented.  For example, in the May, 2019 operation, a man initiated a text conversation with an undercover detective posing as a 14-yr old male. The man said several times that he was disease-free and wanted unprotected anal sex with the boy. During a post-arrest interview, he admitted to traveling to “see some kid,” bringing lubrication, and having child sexual abuse images on his cell phone. The man informed detectives that he had HIV. He was charged with Traveling to Meet a Minor (F2) as well as Misrepresenting Age via Computer to Lure A Minor (F2), Lewd Battery (F2), Failure to Notify of HIV (F-3), and Use 2-Way Communication to Lure a Minor (F3).  A forensic examination of his phone revealed 50 images and over 100 videos of CSAM, including the sexual battery of a boy between 12 and 36 months. The man was additionally charged with 200 counts of “Possession of Child Pornography.” Other charges resulting from that one, large scale operation include Carrying a Concealed Weapon (F3), Carrying Concealed Firearm (F3), Contributing to Delinquency of a Minor (M1), Battery (M1), Possession of Cocaine (F3), and Possession of Methamphetamine (F3).

Among the efforts to reduce sex trafficking, prostitution, and crimes associated with the sex trade have been attempts to address the consumer level demand that provides the revenue for the illicit market.  To reduce prostitution activity in the area, deputies from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office conduct frequent web-based reverse stings and release the names of all arrestees to the public. Sex buyers’ photos are also posted on the PCSO’s official website and distributed to the media. In December 1992, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office announced that it would begin utilizing an existing state law to revoke the licenses of sex buyers’ convicted of solicitation from a vehicle. It remains unclear, however, whether or not the ordinance was consistently enforced in the years that followed.

Although PCSO deputies have conducted “john details” (or reverse stings) at street level, the department is best known for its use of large-scale web stings. The operations, which post advertisements offering or requesting commercial sex on websites known for prostitution and sex trafficking (such as Craigslist and Backpage.com) have netted more than 150 arrests in a single operation. One such sting, conducted in January 2013, resulted in 78 arrests, the majority of which were male sex buyers. In May 2013, another web-based operation netted 92 arrests, including 12 pimps, 39 prostituted women, and 39 sex buyers.  In a December 2013 operation, conducted over four days at an undisclosed location within the county, PCSO deputies arrested 20 men for soliciting prostitution, 28 people on prostitution charges, 13 people on charges of aiding and abetting or deriving proceeds from prostitution, and nine people on various other charges. One of the arrestees was discovered to be a 16-year-old girl, which led police to investigate child sex trafficking charges. Similarly, a May 2014 operation, also conducted over a four-day period, resulted in the arrest of 52 sex buyers, and three potential victims of human trafficking, including a 15-year-old female.

A large-scale December 2015 web-based reversal, conducted by PCSO deputies in partnership with officers from the Lakeland Police Department, netted 33 sex buyers. As with prior stings, the PCSO released a poster with the names and arrest photos of all of the individuals arrested, including alleged sex sellers. Media outlets reported that one individual arrested had brought her 2-year-old daughter to the sting. Law enforcement also indicated that those arrested ranged in age from “15 to 68,” suggesting that minors were also intercepted. PCSO deputies indicated that “at least three women [were identified] who they believe may have been forced into prostitution against their will.”

A much larger reverse sting was conducted in October 2017. Polk County deputies and officers from local police forces conducted a five-day reverse sting resulting in the arrest of more than 200 sex buyers . “Operation No Tricks, No Treats” began Oct. 10 and ran until Oct. 15, according to a press release from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. During the operation, undercover detectives and investigators from several law enforcement agencies posted false advertisements on websites, social media sites and phone apps posing as “prostitutes or to solicit sex workers.”  Investigators reported 209 of those arrested were accused of soliciting undercover detectives. One of the men arrested was a sergeant at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office who had been on the force for 17 years (he resigned after the sting). Among the other suspects arrested were a cancer surgeon, teacher, pediatrician, Air Force veteran, retired deputy sheriff, retired police officer, active colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, and several pharmacists. They ranged in age from 16 to 74 years old.  Another large-scale, web-based prostitution sting occurred in November 2018 that produced over 100 arrests – 30 of which were for charges related to attempting to buy sex. In May 2019, a large-scale operation produced 154 arrests for prostitution-related charges, 75 of which were males seeking to buy sex with police decoys. The identities of all arrestees were posted online by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

In March, 2022, 108 people were arrested by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Vice Unit during a six-day undercover human trafficking operation, “Operation March Sadness 2.” PCSO was assisted by police departments from Winter Haven, Haines City, Lake Wales, and Auburndale, as well as the Office of the State Attorney 10th Judicial Court, members from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), and anti-human trafficking organizations: One More Child, Heartland for Children, and Selah Freedom of Sarasota.  Detectives identified prostituted persons who posted online advertisements as well as the male sex buyers who were seeking victims via online communications, with the intent to identify and free any victims who were being forced into prostitution (human trafficking), or anyone participating in trafficking. Detectives also identified and investigated adults who engaged in on-line sexually charged communications with those they believed were children—four men were arrested for preying on children online.

On September 1st, 2022, the Deputy Chief of Police Administration for the Cartersville (Georgia) Police Department was among those arrested by Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputies on charges of Soliciting another for prostitution, lewdness, or assignation. He had been arrested during a reverse sting operation in the County. The man had responded to an online escort advertisement and began a conversation with an undercover detective, and agreed to engage in sexual activities with the undercover detective, but then told the detective “I got spooked,” and asked to see her the next night. The next day, he reinitiated the online communication, and agreed to come to an undisclosed location to meet the detective. He initially agreed to pay the undercover detective $120 for a half hour of “full service” sex. When he arrived at the undisclosed location, he confirmed the arrangement by giving the undercover detective $180 and a multi-pack of White Claw Hard Seltzer. He was arrested and transported to the Polk County Jail where he was released after paying a $500 bond. The Cartersville Georgia Police Department was notified of the arrest. On September 8th, 2022, the man resigned from his position of employment with the CPD, after being placed on administrative leave soon after his arrest. The arrest was a part of a week-long human trafficking undercover enforcement operation conducted by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies. The purpose of the operation was to identify those involved in human trafficking and arrest those who procure and engage in prostitution. The Cartersville sex buyer had been in Orlando attending an American Polygraph Association Seminar/Workshop. In February, 2023, a 7-day human trafficking operation led to the arrest of 89 sex buyers.

Penalties associated with a prostitution arrest include the public disclosure of identities that comes from having the sheriff and news outlets putting names and photos on their websites. For sex buyers there is a $5,000.00 “civil penalty” required by statute, and other penalties include forfeiting any property seized (including vehicles), community service hours, and paying the cost of the investigation.

Loss of employment is another consequence of buying sex that has occurred within the county. For example, in October, 2020, Florida police arrested 277 people — including doctors, police officers, and pharmacists — during a weeklong undercover sex sting operation dubbed “Operation No Tricks, No Treats.” During the operation, undercover detectives and investigators from several law enforcement agencies posted false advertisements on websites, social media sites and phone apps posing as “prostitutes or to solicit sex workers.” Investigators reported that 209 of those arrested were accused of “soliciting undercover detectives.” One of the men arrested was a sergeant at the Polk Count Sheriff’s Office who had been on the force for 17 years, and then resigned soon after his arrest.

Key Partners

Key Sources

Street-Level Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Neighborhood Action:

Community Service:

Auto Seizure:

License Suspension:

Employment Loss:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Prostitution-Related Child Endangerment, Child Sexual Abuse Materials (CSAM), Weapons, Drugs, Violence:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

State Florida
Type County
Population 753520
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