Spokane, 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

Spokane is a city of approximately 230,000 residents, located in Eastern Washington, near Idaho, and is the second largest city in the state. It is the largest city and the county seat of Spokane County. 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 targeted assaults and homicides against prostituted people. 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 exploited in the local commercial sex market. Attacks on male sex buyers have also been reported, and in 2021, police arrested a Spokane man after finding a body in the trunk of his abandoned vehicle. The suspect killed his daughter’s ex-boyfriend after learning that the man had allegedly sold her into a sex-trafficking organization in Seattle. Sex trafficking became a growing concern over the past decade, and some cases have involved the abuse of very young children and the production of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, often called “child pornography” in state laws). For example, in May 2012, an investigation by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office led to the discovery of a young woman kidnapped and sex trafficked her, and four alleged sex traffickers were apprehended. In September, 2022, a Spokane woman was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sex trafficking her six year old daughter. She had pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking. The offender met a man on the dating app Plenty of Fish and agreed to trade sexual access to the 6-year-old girl in exchange for a place to stay, cash, and the promise of new running shoes. Officers recovered a video of the man raping the young girl. The man also pleaded guilty to those crimes.

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. For example, 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 sex buyers attempt to solicit sex from the undercover officer, they are arrested by police. The SPD has also been known to use audio/visual surveillance to record interactions between suspected sex buyers and undercover officers. The sex buyers’ 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. However, 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 trafficking operation. All of those arrested faced charges related to child rape. According to reports decoy ads were posted on Craigslist, by an undercover officer, posing as a mother offering to sexually exploit her three children, ages 6, 11 and 12, in exchange for money. When the advertisement was posted on Craigslist, detectives were inundated with responses: in just five days, they received more than 1,000 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 sex buyers. 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 buyers.

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 sex buyers would then have to pay a substantial 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 prostituted persons 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 not paper letters sent through the mail, or an e-mailed version, they pursue the same objective of notifying sex buyers (who fund all street-level commercial sex and sex trafficking), 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.

Employment loss is another consequence of buying sex in the city. For example, in October 2006, a Spokane Police prostitution sting resulted in several misdemeanor felony and warrant arrests among those arrested was a spokesman review security guard who was cited for patronizing a prostituted person – a misdemeanor. A spokesman for the newspaper said the man had resigned soon after his arrest. The man had worked for the newspaper since 1995.

Key Sources

Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Neighborhood Action:

Auto Seizure and SOAP Orders:

Web-Based Reverse Sting:


“Dear John” Phone Calls:

Employment Loss:

Community Service:

Background on Local Sex Trafficking, Child Sexual Exploitation, Related CSAM:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Washington
Type City
Population 229071
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