Polk County, FL

Tactics Used

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

Polk County is a county of approximately 600,000 residents, located in central Florida. It contains the cities of Lakeland, Winter Haven, Inwood, Lake Wales and Davenport. 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. Johns’ 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 johns’ 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 several “john” details at street level, the department is best known for its use of large-scale web stings. The stings, which post advertisements offering or requesting commercial sex to websites like Craigslist and Backpage.com, have netted upwards of 50 arrests in a single operation. One such sting, conducted in January 2013, resulted in 78 arrests, the majority of which were male johns.  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 johns, 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 johns. 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 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 over 150 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.

Penalties associated with a prostitution arrest include the public shaming that comes form having the sheriff and news outlets putting names and photos on their websites. For “johns” 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.

Key Partners

Key Sources

State Florida
Type County
Population 572967
Location
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