Seattle, WA

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

Seattle is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, with approximately 741,000 residents. It is the largest city and county seat of King County, WA. The city has struggled with persistent and widespread prostitution and sex trafficking problems for many years, with frontier brothels established in the community in the 1850s, decades before Washington statehood. The legacy of the local sex trade has included multiple serial killers that have targeted sexually exploited women and youth, and cases of male sex buyers torturing individuals being sold in prostitution. Seattle’s reputation as an international seaport, as well its proximity to the Canadian border, are often cited by law enforcement as major factors driving the city’s prostitution and sex trafficking networks. The city is also noted by federal and local law enforcement to be a prominent stop on domestic pimping and human trafficking circuits, facilitated by the city’s geographic placement and the major interstate highways I-5 and I-90. Additional crimes associated with the local sex trade include the production and distribution of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, often called “child pornography” in legal codes), drug abuse, rape, assault, weapons offenses, and robbery.  A recent example from November, 2022, involved a young woman who attempted twice to escape a violent sex trafficker that including jumping out a third-story window, before being rescued by a ride-share driver who engaged in a gunfight with the offender. The suspect was arrested while accompanied by other women he had trafficked. The 20-year-old woman who escaped had been taken from California to Seattle and forced to be sexually assaulted for money. She first tried to escape by jumping nearly naked from the high window, and finally succeeded after running from his car and sitting topless on a highway until the ride-share driver stopped to help her. The victim was taken to a hospital with injuries including black eyes, broken ribs, a broken leg and spinal injuries.

Reverse Stings, Vehicle Seizure, SOAP Orders, and Identity Disclosure:

The Seattle Police Department (with occasional support from the King County Sheriff’s Office) employs several tactics to identify and apprehend local sex buyers.  The SPD was among the first departments in the nation to use street-level reverse stings, beginning in 1974. Operations are now conducted on a routine basis, using one or more female undercover officers as decoys. Once arrested, sex buyers may be served with SOAP (Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution) orders, barring them from reentering areas of the city known for commercial sex activity. Depending upon the circumstances of the arrest, sex buyers may also have their vehicles impounded and be charged an additional $1,000 retrieval fee.  Police may also release the names of arrestees to the local media, although the publication of their identities remains at the discretion of news outlets.

As an increasing number of the city’s sex sales now begin online, SPD vice detectives also utilize web-based stings to intercept sex buyers attempting to solicit sex online. One such operation, conducted in 2006, placed decoy advertisements with photos of undercover female officers selling sex to Craigslist. As men responded to the listings and arranged to meet the officer at a local hotel, they were arrested by police. The department also collaborates with and provides technical assistance and training to peers in nearby communities; in fall 2014, for example, the SPD assisted officers in nearby Des Moines with a web-based reversal that resulted in the arrest of nine sex buyers.

In October 2014, media reported that the SPD planned to ramp up demand-reduction efforts as part of the countywide Buyer Beware initiative, launched by the King County Prosecutor’s Office. The initiative will prioritize the arrest of sex buyers over sellers, while offering and redirecting sellers to social service programs in lieu of arrest. At the county level, it will include additional public awareness efforts (e.g., online pop-up ads to deter would-be sex buyers) and an expanded john school program for convicted offenders. To read more about Buyer Beware, see King County. When asked about the program, a representative with the SPD commented:

“We now recognize that to truly be effective, we need to target the demand, and shift from arresting survivors to arresting the sex buyers.”

In September 2019, a Seattle Police Department captain was arrested by his fellow officers in a reverse sting. The veteran officer offered $40 to an undercover officer who was posing as a prostituting woman.  He was was one of five men arrested in the Aurora sting, and according to jail records, he was booked and released in less than 30 minutes. The processing of this sex buyer was later investigated to determine if the Captain had received preferential treatment. Reportedly, a body cam video showed a sergeant telling the Captain that he would make the arrest as “painless as possible,” before turning off the camera, and that the man was in contact with high-ranking officers almost immediately and taken downtown instead of the north precinct. He also was given an expedited booking and release.  The man was placed on administration leave after his arrest on suspicion of sexual exploitation, a charge for patronizing a prostitute.  There are no public reports indicating that the Captain was fired or resigned in response to his arrest.

Public Education, Neighborhood Action

As of the end of 2012, an NGO, the Businesses Ending Slavery & Trafficking (BEST) alliance, was engaged in launching a program designed to engage businesses in addressing demand for commercial sex as a means of combating sex trafficking.   Their “Inhospitable to Trafficking Project” is designed to raise awareness about the harms of prostitution. As of the end of 2012, the same person who will be leading part of BEST’s training of hotel employees leads the Seattle john school classes. He’s been working with survivors and buyers for over 20 years and for the BEST program will be using some of the same training material he uses in the john school, aimed at convincing men not to buy sex or to condone or facilitate commercial sex.  The Project will raise awareness about the penalties for buying sex in Washington–which have increased substantially.  The Project is also intended to clearly communicate that facilitating prostitution is a crime–and they will urge hotel managers who participate in the training to create and implement “in-house” penalties for employees who are caught facilitating prostitution.  An assumption of the program is that most of the hotel-based facilitation of prostitution involves hotel employees helping buyers find individuals offering commercial sex acts. The training will address an audience in which a large majority may have spent their careers seeing and overlooking prostitution, and may view prostitution as a victimless crime. It is also intended to impact employees in hotels who themselves are buyers.

In May 2014, a new community group – Greenwood Aurora Involved Neighbors — mobilized to combat prostitution, handing out new brochures to individuals selling sex on the street with information on how they can get help, and urging them to help apprehend sex buyers.

John School Programs

In addition to street-level and web-based reverse sting operations, 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.”

Loss of Employment, Identity Disclosure

Loss of employment is another  consequence of buying sex in the county. For example, in August 2014, a deputy from the King County Sheriff’s Office was sentenced to 366 days in jail after pleading guilty to charges of promoting prostitution, theft, and drug dealing. The charges stemmed from a two-month long investigation that began when the KCSO discovered the deputy had been sex trafficking his wife through posting ads of her on Backpage.com, a website known for prostitution and sex trafficking. The deputy was initially placed on administrative leave but was officially fired after his arrest. The offender had been a member of the KCSO for 19 years. The offender’s identity was included in reports by local media outlets.

In October, 2017, a longtime morning show host at Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle confirmed he was no longer employed with the station. The announcement came less than two months after the man was caught in a prostitution sting in Bellevue, WA. The man had been employed by the station for 23 years before being arrested in the undercover sting, “Operation On Demand”. According to a police report, the man had arrived at the condo and putt $160 on a bedside table in exchange for one half-hour of sex.

In 2017, a tenured professor at the University of Washington was fired after sexually harassing employees and misusing university money. In 2016, a university investigation determined that the man had violated the school’s sexual harassment policies with two employees. A second investigation, conducted by the UW School of Medicine, concluded that he had misused university funds by asking an employee to do chores for him and soliciting a prostituted person. His termination came more than 18 months after the investigations ended

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey and Interviews

Buyer Beware Program:

John School:

Reverse Stings (Mode Not Specified):

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

SOAP Orders:

Neighborhood Action:

Identity Disclosure:

Loss of Employment, Identity Disclosure:

Auto Seizure:

Public Education:

Background on Local Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area; Related CSAM:

State Washington
Type City
Population 741251
Location
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