Portland, OR

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

Portland is a city of roughly 650,000 residents situated in Northwestern Oregon, across the Columbia River from the city of Vancouver, WA. Portland is the population center of Multnomah County and the area has a long history of serious and visible problems associated with prostitution and sex trafficking. For example, in January 2013, a 43 year old man was sentenced in U.S. District Court for interstate transportation of a 22 year old woman for purposes of prostitution. According to court documents, the sex trafficker had advertised the woman on Backpage.com, transported her to meet potential sex buyers, kept the entirety of her money, and supplied her with drugs. He threatened to harm her and her family, and in December 2011, was arrested and later convicted in state court for assaulting the woman. He was arrested again in May 2012, after he had taken the woman to Portland for purposes of prostitution, and then attempted to have the woman withdraw a state-issued no contact order against him. In September 2012, the offender pleaded guilty to interstate transportation for prostitution. The indictment alleged that between August 2011 and April 2012, the woman had been engaging in commercial sex acts through force, fraud and coercion at the hands of the offender, in addition to transporting her across state lines between Washington and Oregon for purposes of prostitution. Data released in 2020 showed that the state of Oregon identified 746 victims of human trafficking across the state in a 12-month period between October 2018 and October 2019, according to the Oregon Department of Justice and Department of Human Services. Child sex trafficking is a particularly serious and documented problem in the Portland area. The city is known to be a major stop on domestic and international sex trafficking networks. Among the dangers of prostitution and sex trafficking is the risk of homicide; e.g., Portland has had more than one serial killer who targeted sexually exploited women and girls operating in the city. In addition, there have been many cases of rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, and weapons offenses against sexually exploited persons, as well as the armed assault and robbery of sex buyers. Child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) have also been involved in local prostitution and trafficking cases.

Portland has mobilized to address the demand for commercial sex since the mid-1970s, and possibly before. Local police began conducting reverse stings in 1974. Since then, the city has employed nearly all of the types of tactics known to have been used to combat demand. For example, Portland was a pioneer in the systematic use of SOAP orders (geographic exclusion zones for arrested prostituted persons and sex buyers), and has sent “dear john” letters to the homes of sex buyers; public education and awareness focusing on demand; neighborhood group efforts; auto seizures; and community service. The city launched a “john school” in 1995, the same year that San Francisco, CA started its program (which is widely – but erroneously – regarded as the first).  It was cancelled two years later, and a second john school ran from 2003-2006.  In January 2011, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and the city of Portland launched a third john school program, the Sex Buyer Accountability Diversion program (SBAD),which is currently operating in 2019. More information about these programs is provided below.

John Schools

Since 2012, arrested sex buyers in Multnomah County can be sentenced to terms of probation, incarceration in Lane County Jail, and may receive reduced jail terms if eligible to serve in an alternative program, where they are required to take an eight-hour Sex Buyer Accountability class ran by LifeWorks NorthWest in Multnomah County. There have been two previous programs fitting within the general “john school” concept. All three are briefly described below.

#1: Sexual Exploitation Education Project.

1995-1997

The city’s first sex buyer education program was the Sexual Exploitation Education Project (SEEP).  It was active in 1995-1997, and was run by the Council for Prostitution Alternatives through an informal agreement with Multnomah County District Attorney and the District Court.  SEEP was a three-day classroom program, established as a condition of a sentence rather than as a diversion option resulting in dismissed charges. The program was cancelled due to a lack of support by local law enforcement agencies, including the courts that stopped referring men to the program. Published reports state that the program was considered by local agencies to be too polemic and political, rather than educational and practical. Having never seen the program, we cannot comment on the validity of the claims of SEEP’s detractors or supporters, although references and links to their reports are provided below. The reports also provide more detail about the program’s structure, curriculum, and operation. For a summary of SEEP’s basic features, as well as those of the other two Portland/Multnomah County john schools, click here:  Three Portland John Schools: Summary Table.

#2: Portland Prostitution Offender Program.

2003-2006

The city’s second john school was the Portland Prostitution Offender Program (PPOP). It operated from 2003 to 2006, and was led by the Lola Greene Baldwin Foundation, in partnership with the Multnomah County Community and Circuit Courts. The program was designed as a condition of a sentence, rather than a diversion, as was its predecessor – SEEP. In the PPOP, successful completion of the john school would result a reduction in the number of hours offenders were required to perform community service (another standard condition of their sentence). One of the reasons the program was discontinued after two years was that an unusually small program fee was charged to offenders, which resulted in the PPOP not being financially self-sustaining, as are most john schools. The PPOP charged $83, while the national average john school fee or fine is approximately $400 and can range as high as $1,500 (Norfolk, VA).

#3: Sex Buyer Accountability Diversion program.

2011-Present

Five years after the PPOP ended, the city of Portland and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office initiated a third john school program, the Sex Buyer Accountability Diversion program (SBAD). Launched in January 2011, the program was modeled explicitly after San Francisco’s FOPP, unlike its two predecessors. It is a diversion program, where meeting all of the requirements results in a case dismissal. The fee is $1,000, with provisions for a sliding scale based on ability to pay. The program is financially supported entirely by fees from the offenders, and excess revenue is used to support programs for survivors of commercial sex and sex trafficking. In the first two years of the program (January 2011 to May 2013), which was administered by Lifeworks Northwest and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, it served over 200 participants. By 2015, the program had served over 300 participants, and by 2019, it had served over 800 participants. The SBAD program is still in operation as of May 2022. For more information on this program, click here: Sex Buyer Accountability Diversion Program.

Reverse Stings 

Police have used women decoys to arrest sex buyers since at least 1974. During 1982, the Portland Police Bureau made 1,600 prostitution arrests, in which 400 buyers were arrested. In addition to street-level reverse sting operations, web-based investigations are also conducted in the city. During these operations, the identities, ages, and images of arrested sex buyers are frequently released to local media outlets. For example, between January and June of 2018, 50 male sex buyers were arrested on charges of Commercial Sexual Solicitation (ORS 167.008) as the result of numerous web-based reverse sting operations conducted in the city and greater county areas. In January 2018, two operations were conducted that resulted in the arrest of 13 male sex buyers. The first operation resulted in the arrest of eight male sex buyers, and the second operation resulted in the arrest of five male sex buyers. In June 2018, 37 male sex buyers were arrested and the PPB offered 12 prostituted women resources for assistance, which many reportedly accepted. During the operations, investigators communicated online with the suspects seeking to pay for commercial sex. Seven local law enforcement agencies collaborated in the anti-sex trafficking effort, with arrests occurring at multiple area hotels. Other agencies involved in the operation included the Portland Police Bureau, Hillsboro Police Department, Vancouver Police Department, Lake Oswego Police Department, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, and Oregon State Police.

A similar operation, conducted in November 2018, consisted of undercover investigators communicating with suspected sex buyers online, and resulted in the arrest of 23 sex buyers upon their arrival at two Portland and Hillsboro hotels. Two men arrested at the Hillsboro hotel were arrested on charges of Luring a Minor (ORS 163.057) while the other sex buyers were arrested on charges of Commercial Sexual Solicitation (ORS 167.008).

In April 2021, a similar web-based operation led to the arrest of six men who attempted to sexually exploit children in exchange for money. One of the exploiters arrested was a former speaker of the Oregon House who represented parts of northern Clackamas County in the Legislature for over a decade. According to state records, at the time of his arrest, he was a lobbyist for the Legislature on behalf of a dozen clients including the Northwest Grocery Association, the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, and Oregon AFSCME 75. Also in April, 2021, the Portland Police Bureau’s Human Trafficking Unit cited 8 men in an undercover operation. Officers posted online decoy ads on website known to facilitate sex trafficking. The subjects who contacted undercover police officers to arrange payment for sexual acts were criminally cited on the charge of Commercial Sexual Solicitation. A list of those arrested is available to the public by e-mailing ppbpio@portlandoregon.gov .

In May of 2021, The Portland Police Bureau Human Trafficking Unit cited 39 men for the crime of Commercial Sexual Solicitation (ORS 167.008) through undercover operations and directed patrol in high vice locations within Portland. During the undercover operation, officers posted online decoy ads on known websites where human trafficking and commercial sexual solicitation activity have been identified. Suspects who responded to those ads and met the elements of the crime, were cited and released. According to the Commercial Sexual Solicitation (ORS 167.008), any person who pays, or offers or agrees to pay, a fee to engage in sexual conduct or sexual contact is guilt of commercial sexual solicitation. Citations for a Commercial Sexual Solicitation (ORS 167.008) offense allow offenders to remain free until they are required to appear in court at a later date.

The PPB and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office routinely participate in national reversals such as the National John’s Suppression Initiative (NJSI) and Operation Cross Country. These operations are conducted annually in coordination with other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Geographic Exclusion Zone (SOAP Orders)

Like most greater metro regions, Portland and Multnomah County have a street with a long history of being a focal point for street prostitution, and that have high concentrations of sexually-oriented businesses, storefront brothels, and motels catering to (or tolerating) prostitution. In Portland and beyond, this is 82nd Avenue, and is akin to strips such as the Miracle Mile in Tucson, AZ and Mannheim Boulevard in Cook County, IL. In 1995, the city passed an ordinance (Portland City Code Sec. 14B.30) and police began enforcing the “Prostitution Free Zone” that focused on 82nd Avenue and an area surrounding it. The geographic exclusion zone (also known generically in some cities as a SOAP Order, for Stay away from Areas with Prostitution) is broadly written and enforced to include both buyers and sellers of sex, and a larger number of orders have been applied to sex sellers than buyers.  However, it is a tool that is used to punish and discourage arrested sex buyers.  In simplest terms, those arrested for prostitution offenses can be ordered to stay out of the defined zone, and violations of this restriction can result in enhanced penalties.  Portland’s ordinance and other reference materials about the Prostitution Free Zone are provided below.

The Prostitution Free Zone was challenged as an inappropriate restriction on individual freedoms and for being unevenly applied across races, and incurred costs in its enforcement. Due to budget cuts to law enforcement agencies and other concerns, the Zone was allowed to expire or “sunset” in September, 2007. Reportedly, soon after the Zone expired residents, businesses, and those traveling through the area observed a rapid and substantial increase in prostitution in the area, and in problems associated with it – e.g., in a rise in street crime rates, harassment of residents and business patrons by sex buyers, prostituted persons, and sex traffickers/pimps, and calls for service to police from the area increased. Police attempted to compensate for the loss of the zone by increased patrols and enforcement efforts. Community groups mobilized and formed a Prostitution Advisory Council, which wrote a report and in late 2009 presented to city officials recommendations for reinstatement of the Zone and other measures such as re-establishing a john school (which was not active at that time).

Neighborhood Action

Portland has had many neighborhood groups and organizations that have formed and mobilized to combat prostitution and sex trafficking. Some of their efforts have been specifically focused on demand. For example, in the mid-to-late 1980s, residents of neighborhoods with high rates of prostitution activity began documenting the license plate numbers of suspected sex buyers, taking photos of suspected sex buyers’ cars and their license plates, posting signs outside homes and businesses, holding protests, and investigating vehicles of suspected sex buyers’ parked outside residential homes. One resident was even reported to have interrupted individuals seen engaging in commercial sex outside. by writing them down or taking photos that were submitted to police for further investigation. Residents also wrote letters to known sex buyers who regularly visited their neighborhoods to engage in commercial sex. After the SOAP orders ordinance had expired in 2007, the community-driven Prostitution Advisory Council wrote a report and presented to city officials recommendations for reinstatement of SOAP orders and re-establishing a john school.

Public Awareness/Deterrence

In 1983, the city unveiled three billboards with the message, “If you’re looking for a prostitute, plan on getting arrested.” According to reports, the creation of the billboards was in response to neighborhood complaints to police regarding the increase in prostitution activity in certain areas. Residents and police believed that the billboards would reduce the demand for commercial sex in certain neighborhoods by deterring individuals seeking to purchase commercial sex from frequenting areas where the billboards were present. In 1985, police reported that in areas where the billboards were present, the number of sex buyers frequenting the areas had decreased from previous years.

Sex Buyer Arrests

Some arrests of sex buyers are the product of police responding to incidents or allegations about prostitution or sex trafficking, rather than the results of proactive revers stings using police decoys. For example, in 1985, police focused on targeting sex buyers in effort to reduce demand for commercial sex in the city and began arresting suspected sex buyers at their homes. According to reports, between October and November 1985, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office issued 10 arrest warrants to suspected sex buyers in the city.

Loss of Employment

Loss of employment is also a consequence of buying sex in the city. For example, in August 2013, police responded to a call reporting two people who had allegedly been engaging in sex in bushes off of a boulevard. Upon further investigation, police discovered that the man was a state police tribal gaming detective and had solicited sex from the prostituted women. As a result of his arrest, the sex buyer was placed on unpaid suspension following his arrest on charges of patronizing a prostitute and public indecency. The Oregon State Police initiated an investigation, and later received notice that the man resigned effective Aug. 31. He had worked for the Oregon State Police for 23 years.

In 2016, administrators at Portland Public Schools placed the district’s director of school and family partnerships on administrative leave after discovering that he had allegedly been convicted of the offense patronizing a prostitute in 1998. According to a police report from December 1997, when the former director was 36, he had allegedly paid a prostituted woman $20 so he could film her engaging in oral sex on him in a maroon Dodge Shadow. The report stated that he had picked her up from a North Portland 7-Eleven. The former employee stated that he pleaded no-contest to the charge on the advice of his attorney and because of “the reality that the word of a black man would not be taken over the word of a white police officer.” In Oregon, a conviction for soliciting a prostitute (including a no-contest plea) automatically disqualifies a person from seeking a teacher’s license. PPS administrators say central office staff and principals are subject to the same standards as teachers. According to officials from Portland Public Schools, the offender had been employed by the district since 2013, and had undergone and passed a background check during his hiring process. As a result of the PPS’ discovery, the former director was placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation.

IT-Based Tactics

Among the most significant developments over the past decade include the emergence of new tactics using information technology (IT) to deter sex buyers and develop evidence to apprehend those actively seeking to purchase sex. The abilities of this technology features quite prominently in what is referred to as “chatbots.” These chatbots are robot chats that mimic human conversations through voice commands, text chats, or both. It represents a virtual conversation with potential sex buyers, in which one party is an online “chatting” robot.  The bot interacts with sex buyers and eventually sends a deterrence message warning of the legal and social dangers of trafficking. The Portland Police Bureau routinely participates in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office’s annual operation, National Johns Suppression Initiative (NJSI), focusing on deterring sex buyers and disrupting the online facilitation of sex trafficking. From Jan. 1 to Feb. 2, 2020, the Portland Police Bureau was one of 22 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to participate in the National John Suppression Initiative (NJSI). The targeted enforcement operation was aimed at deterring and disrupting the online activity for commercial sexual solicitation. During the operation, Portland police made 252 contacts with potential prostitution buyers via text messages and phone calls. That was the third most nationwide during the NJSI initiative, behind New York City and Tarrant County, TX. The online decoy ads were monitored by Portland officers, as well as with artificial intelligence. A total of 304 deterrence messages were sent out in response to inquires inquiry by potential sex buyers. The Portland Police Bureau has been using the AI bot during the NJSI since February 2019.

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey, Interviews, and Site Visit

Research:

John Schools:

#1: Sexual Exploitation Education Project. (1995-1997)

#2: Portland Prostitution Offender Program. (2003-2006)

#3: Sex Buyer Accountability Diversion program. (2011-Current)

Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Operation Cross Country:

SOAP Orders:

Neighborhood Action:

Public Awareness, Education, and Deterrence:

Sex Buyer Arrest, Identity Disclosure:

Loss of Employment, Identity Disclosure:

IT-Based Tactics:

Auto Seizure:

“Dear John” Letters:

Background on Sex Trafficking, Child Sexual Exploitation, CSAM in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Prostitution-Related Violence, Weapons, CSAM, Illicit Drugs in the Portland Area:

State Oregon
Type City
Population 650380
Location
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