Providence, RI

Tactics Used

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

Providence is the capital and most populous city of the state of Rhode Island, and was one of the first cities established in the United States. Located in Providence County, it is the third largest city in the New England region with an approximate population of 183,000 residents.  Numerous problems associated with the local prostitution market have been documented, including child sex trafficking and the assault and homicide of prostituted persons.

Providence has experienced profound changes over the past thirty years in how the city has approached – or has been allowed to approach, more accurately – prostitution and sex trafficking.  This holds true for all communities in the state, since a loophole in the state prostitution law was interpreted in the early 1980s through the mid-2000s as allowing sex to be sold legally, as long as the solicitation occurred in private.  Prostitution laws had been reformed in 1980, reducing the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.  The reformed law prohibited the public solicitation of sex – interpreted as trying to sell sex on the streets or to publicly advertise – but did not explicitly prohibit the exchange of sex for money as long as it was not arranged in public.  The result of the law and its interpretation is that brothel-based prostitution and sex trafficking flourished in Rhode Island from 1980 to 2009.

In 2009, a new law was passed that closed the loophole and expressly forbade prostitution. Under both the prior law and the new one, some city police departments have conducted street-level reverse stings, since street prostitution was illegal under both the 1980 and the 2009 laws.  The first known reverse sting in Providence occurred in 1987, and the identities of the arrestees were publicized.  As part of a Weed and Seed program initiative, reverse stings occurred in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence in the early 2000s.  The men’s identities would be placed in local newspapers, and the men could be ordered to perform community service.  Both reverse stings and shaming tactics have been used on a routine basis since that time.

Law enforcement agencies continue to operate stings and make arrests for prostitution and human trafficking. In April 2015, for example, the Providence Police Department announced the arrests of 22 johns during a web-based reverse sting. “Alarmed by one case after another of underage girls and women being trafficked for sex on Backpage.com,” Providence officials and PPD officers launched an investigation targeting individuals attempting to purchase sex online. Twenty-two johns were intercepted during the investigation; all of the arrestees’ names and mugshots were released to the public. In early May 2015, it was announced that 13 additional johns had been arrested in a second web-based reversal; their identities were similarly disclosed to the public.

Key Partners

  • Providence Police Department
  • Rhode Island State Police
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • Professor Donna Hughes, University of Rhode Island
  • Project Weber

Key Sources

Street-Level Reverse Stings with Shaming:

Web-Based Reverse Stings with Shaming:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Rhode Island
Type City
Population 182911
Location
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