SeaTac, WA

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

SeaTac is a city of approximately 31,000 residents in Washington state, located in the southern suburbs of Seattle, WA in King County, WA. Not formally incorporated as a city until February 1990, SeaTac comprises the areas in and around the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Prostitution and sex trafficking continue to pose formidable problems for local law enforcement, with the majority of activities concentrated along International Boulevard and in the city’s many hotels and motels. Among the more serious crimes associated with the city’s commercial sex market is child sex trafficking. For example, in February, 2023, during investigations near Sea-Tac International Airport, agents worked with a variety of state and local agencies rescued nine sex trafficking victims from multiple states, one of whom was a minor. Four people were arrested including a registered sex offender and a gun-owning gang member. The city was also in the operating area of the “Green River Killer” (Gary Ridgeway) who systematically hunted and murdered dozens of prostituted women and trafficked girls.  He was convicted of 49 murders, and admitted that the number was closer to 65.

To address these and a wide range of additional crimes arising from the local sex trade, the SeaTac Police Department employs several tactics that target local demand for commercial sex. Officers routinely conduct street-level reverse stings and web stings to identify and intercept sex buyers. Operations typically utilize one or more undercover female officers, who pose as decoys. As sex buyers attempt to solicit sex from undercover officers, they are apprehended by police. Under city and county law, convicted sex buyers may face up to 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Repeat offenders may be further penalized with additional fees and jail time, as per a 1990 SeaTac city ordinance. Officers also reserve the right to seize and impound a solicitor’s vehicle, depending upon the circumstances of the individual’s arrest.

In recent years, SeaTac has also been identified as a major transit point for sex traffickers in the Pacific Northwest. In 2009, local law enforcement reported that over 80 underaged girls were involved in sex trafficking arrests in the South Seattle area alone. As the majority of trafficking operations cross several jurisdictions, SeaTac police frequently collaborate with officers from the Seattle Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office to investigate male sex buyers attempting to solicit sex from minors.

John School Programs

Additionally, there have been at least four known john school programs in King County. The first known john school in the county operated from 2006 to 2007, whereby sex buyers could avoid significant criminal charges if they paid a substantial enrollment fee, attended educational classes, and avoided re-arrest. The course, which included lectures from health professionals and formerly prostituted women, also addressed the growing presence of trafficking networks in the region. By discussing the long-term impacts of sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation on victims and their families, the program hoped to educate sex buyers about the potential consequences of purchasing commercial sex. The program was a one-day classroom experience modeled after the San Francisco First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP). Although the program was not renewed beyond its pilot period, in 2015, a similar john school was launched in Seattle. In 2019, the program was transferred from the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) to the Lantern Project, and modified. Its description may be found here.

Buyer Beware Program

In 2014, the King County Prosecutor’s Office launched a new initiative designed to reduce the demand for prostitution, change the attitudes and behaviors of men arrested for patronization, and eliminate cultural acceptance of the purchase of sex. The Buyer Beware initiative is a partnership with eight police departments and city attorneys’ offices across King County that are shifting their emphasis to pursue sex buyers. The initiative is led by the Organization for Prostitution Survivors and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Participating community organizations include Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), Stolen Youth, and Seattle Against Slavery. Participating law enforcement agencies include the King County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments of Seattle, Des Moines, Kent, Federal Way, Bellevue, and Renton.

Buyer Beware brings together local prosecuting authorities, community service organizations, and survivors to implement a comprehensive strategy to reduce demand for commercial sex and facilitate exit from prostitution. The Buyer Beware program model emphasizes prosecuting sex buyers and connecting prostituted people to services. The original goal in 2014 was to reduce demand for commercial sex by 20% in two years.

The program’s approach is essentially the “Nordic Model” or “Equality Model” which decriminalizes selling sex and criminalizes the actions of pimps and buyers, rather than the actions of prostituted persons. This model can be accomplished without changing prostitution law by making discretionary decisions not to arrest and prosecute prostituted or trafficked persons, even if selling sex remains illegal in state law and local ordinances. Additionally, the Buyer Beware program includes John Schools, neighborhood action, and public education. The key elements of the program are:

  • Referring sex buyers to “Stopping Sexual Exploitation,” a comprehensive intervention program.
  • Collecting fines from arrested sex buyers to fund services for prostituted people.
  • Reducing arrests and prosecutions of prostituted persons in favor of referral to services.
  • Expanding effective services to assist prostituted people in leaving the life.
  • Forming an alliance of public and private employers committed to implementing policies and practices against sex buying.
  • Educating high school and college students on the harms of commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Conducting social media campaigns to educate young men on the harms of sex buying.
  • Changing cultural norms surrounding the purchase of sex by involving a variety of community sectors, such as public health, education, business, media, and criminal justice.

The program planned to launch an online public education tool where advertisements “pop up” when sex buyers input certain terms into search engines. Although the mechanism for deploying these advertisements was not disclosed, when implemented the advertisements would “link to information about prostitution-related penalties and services for men who need help to stop buying sex.”

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey and Interview (2012)

Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Stings, Identity Disclosure:

SOAP Orders:

Neighborhood Action:

John School:

Public Education:

Auto Seizure: 

Buyer Beware Program:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

State Washington
Type City
Population 30759
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