Spokane, WA

Tactics Used

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

Spokane is a city of approximately 470,000 residents, located in eastern Washington. It is the second largest city in the state. Prostitution has been a persistent and visible problem in the area for decades.  Among the more serious negative outcomes of the local commercial sex market are assaults and murders committed by men specifically targeting women selling sex.  At least one serial offender who focused exclusively on killing local women offering prostitution has operated in the city. In 1990 alone, three local women involved in prostitution were found dead from gunshot wounds. Law enforcement have also documented cases of rape, robbery, and physical assaults committed against women and girls involved in the local commercial sex market. Attacks on johns have also been reported. More recently, sex trafficking became a growing concern. In May 2012, an investigation by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office led to the discovery of a young woman held against her will and forced to engage in sexual acts for money, and four alleged traffickers were apprehended.

In their range of efforts to address the numerous negative consequences of the local commercial sex market, the Spokane Police Department has adopted demand-focused tactics aimed to identify and apprehend sex buyers. In 1976, city law enforcement were among the first in the nation to incorporate the use of street-level reverse stings. Operations, which typically employ the use of one or more undercover female officers as decoys, are now routinely conducted in the downtown and East Spokane area. As johns attempt to solicit sex from the undercover officer, they are arrested by police. The men’s names and other identifying information may be released to the public.

Historically, most of the reverse sting operations occurring in Spokane have been street-level operations – often repeated in the same handful of areas of the city in which commercial sex is persistent.  More recently, web-based reverse stings have been conducted.  For example, in 2016 Spokane Police detectives arrested 13 people in connection to a child sex sting operation. All of those arrested faced charges related to child rape. An undercover officer posed as a mother offering her three children, ages 6, 11 and 12, to others for sex in a Craigslist ad. When the advertisement was posted on Craigslist, detectives were inundated with responses: in just five days, they received more than one thousand replies. Court documents showed that the web-based reverse sting in Spokane was part of a five day effort called “Operation Net Nanny” that involved several state and federal law enforcement agencies in multiple communities, and resulted in the arrest of 40  predators.

Local residents and businesses have been mobilized to reduce demand in Spokane. In the late 1990s, media outlets interviewed several city business owners who were working with public officials to draft a proposed ordinance that would allow Spokane to seize the vehicles of arrested johns. Although the community ultimately did not adopt the ordinance at that time, the Spokesman-Review reported that local businesses had partnered with officials after growing tired of “recording license plate numbers” and “using bullhorns” to scare off johns.

Spokane revisited the possibility of instituting an auto seizure ordinance in December 2014. In a new proposal, city lawmakers suggested designating “the section of East Central Spokane between Hamilton and Fiske Streets [an] area of high prostitution, [and] as part of that designation, police would have the right to impound the car of anyone who is caught soliciting a prostitute. Those johns would then have to pay a hefty fine to retrieve their cars.” The ordinance was successfully enacted in January 2015. Local media reported that 50 percent of the funds generated from car impoundment fees would “go to help victims of sex trafficking.”

In March 2015, the city government put up signs in an effort to curb prostitution around Sprague Avenue. The signs read:””Designated Area of High Prostitution Activity. Vehicles used to further prostitution will be impounded.” City officials said they hoped a towing ordinance aimed at those soliciting prostitutes will help deter the crime. After the signs went up , Spokane police conducted two prostitution stings, in which seven people were arrested and five cars impounded. In one of the stings, police reported the arrests of three sex buyers and seizure of two vehicles during a street-level reverse sting. Although the men’s identities were not disclosed, it was reported that each of the vehicle owners was served with a $500 fine, in addition to towing costs.  The owners of local businesses said they are willing to fight for their neighborhood, and are being more aware of calling in suspicious activity. In February 2016, media outlets reported that SPD officers had “personally called more than 200 registered vehicle owners to let them know where their car has been spotted” in a high-stroll area in the prior year.

In 2016 Spokane police began using a variation of the “dear john letter” tactic.  Businesses and homeowners near areas with substantial prostitution activity ( and locations where reverse stings are conducted) were urged by police to call in the license plates of vehicles involved in behavior consistent with trolling for street prostitution.  Police received numerous tips, and one officer personally called more than 200 registered vehicle owners to let them know where their car has been spotted along Sprague Avenue and pulling over to talk with persons know to engage in prostitution.  While the phone calls are obviously not letters sent through the mail or e-mail, they pursue the same objective of notifying those funding street-level commercial sex that  their behavior is not going unnoticed by law enforcement – even if they have not been apprehended or charged with that offense. In circumstances where the vehicles have been driven by someone other than the owner, the phone calls or letters alert the vehicle owners that their car  may be used for purchasing sex.

Key Sources

State Washington
Type City
Population 200975
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