Tacoma, WA

Tactics Used

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

Tacoma is a city of about 200,000 residents located in Southern Puget Sound, near Seattle.   Several areas of the city have been known to have prevalent prostitution, sex trafficking, and related problems.  Tacoma police reported that they had received about 2,000 prostitution-related calls for service from residents and businesses in a 30-month period in 2007-2009.  The problem can be traced back to the mid-1900s, and for decades the main response by police would be to arrest those selling sex and ignoring the buyers.  Frustrated by the lack of any known benefits to be found from arresting women and girls selling sex, in 1982 the Tacoma Police Department began conducting reverse stings.  In 2004 they began web-based reverse sting operations, initiated by posting online decoy ads for commercial sex.  The city does not routinely release the identities of arrestees in an effort to shame and deter them.  In 2004, Tacoma partnered with the city of Lakewood and Pierce County to launch a john school program, modeled roughly on the FOPP in San Francisco.  Later, the small town of Fife began sending their arrestees to the program.  More info details about the john school are provided in the resources linked below.

SOAP Orders and Neighborhood Collaboration:  The “Make Tacoma Safe, Clean, and Attractive” Initiative.

Tacoma has had a great deal of community involvement in its efforts to address prostitution and sex trafficking.  This initiative is a collaboration between community organizations (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood groups such as Citizens Against Prostitution) and government agencies at the city, county, and state levels (e.g., Tacoma Police Department, Pierce County jail, the Washington State Department of Corrections).  The Make Tacoma Safe, Clean, and Attractive (MTSCA) team targets street level prostitution and related crime within Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution (SOAP) zones. Community involvement and the facilitation of the new state vehicle impound law are regarded as critical components in their effort. The team has researched best practices with a goal to create more disincentives for prostituted women and their customers to operate in Tacoma.  The team has put up a Web site shell. It is indexed within the main MTSCA landing page and can be found at: http://www.cityoftacoma.org/Page.aspx?cid=12845 

The initiative hopes to impact positive changes in the realm of enforcement as well as prevention, and they are aware that the program and any positive changes it produces must be sustainable within the community.  The team is working on forging connections with key stakeholders in the community, like the Pacific Avenue Business District. It is also working on gathering data on the correlation between prostitution and the spread of disease, best practices from other municipalities on what it takes to make prostitution less profitable, and gathering current prostitution data for bench-marking purposes. While researching what other municipalities around the country are doing to combat street prostitution, the team has observed what Kent, Washington was doing regarding enforcement of the new state law, HB 1362.

MTSCA leaders made a presentation to Tacoma’s Public Safety Committee on the new state vehicle impound law related to prostitution activity. As a part of the preparation for the unveiling of the anti-prostitution community signs, team members made presentations on TV Tacoma’s “CityLine,” at a Tacoma Police Department staff meeting, and at a meeting of the Tacoma City Council Subcommittee on Public Safety. These presentations were credited with motivated City officials to focus resources on the problems associated with street prostitution.  The team has examined the possibility of having public service announcements on local radio stations warning of increased prostitution enforcement on the streets of the city. It would also announce enforcement of the newer state law involving impounding vehicles used by johns and the $500 fee that must be paid for their recovery.

Tacoma/Pierce County Regional John School

The Tacoma/Pierce county Regional Johns School began operating in 2005 in Tacoma, but it originated in the neighboring city of Lakewood two years earlier.  An officer with the Lakewood Police Department began the program in 2003, modeled roughly on the San Francisco FOPP john school.  While there is just one curriculum for the education sessions, the different cities that send men to the regional john school are free to vary how the program fits within their criminal just process for arrestees.  For example, the john school is an option that judges may use as a condition of a sentence for men arrested in Tacoma.  For men arrested in Lakewood, it is offered as an voluntary program in a criminal justice diversion model.  For Tacoma, the men are required to pay a $600 fine, while men arrested in Lakewood who volunteer have to pay a $700 fee.  A portion of the revenue from the tacoma johns is used to fund a program for the survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking (the Promise Program).  The program’s curriculum contains discussion of:

  • health risks (for johns as well as others)
  • personal safety risks (for johns as well as others)
  • dynamics of pimping & prostitution
  • degative impact on survivors (discussion by former provider of commercial sex)
  • negative impact of prostitution and sex trafficking on the community (includes community impact panel of businesses and residents)
  • STI & HIV tests

The john school has not been evaluated for its impact on prostitution or sex trafficking.


Neighborhoods where prostitution is especially problematic have seen surveillance cameras overtly used by private businesses specifically as a deterrent to sex buyers.  For example, in 2007 a restaurant owner increased the number of surveillance cameras monitoring their property.  They observed many johns and prostituted women making initial contact near the restaurant’s front entrance and then move to the side or rear of the building to complete their transactions.   To deter sex buyers, the business placed a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk at the front of the restaurant that read, “Smile johns, you’re on camera.”

In 2007, an informal community group launched a Youtube channel, StopCrimeOnTacomaAve, that offered digital photos and video clips taken and posted by private citizens that show apparent prostitution and drug deals occurring in public areas of the city.  The community liaison officer for the Tacoma Police Department said that the photos and clips have been useful in making arrests and in documenting and bringing police attention to the level of activity in specific areas of the city.

Community Service

Community service is an option that judges may use in sentences for arrested sex buyers, often in conjunction with other penalties or programs.  For example, in 2009 a former Pierce County Superior Court judge was sentenced to 240 hours of community service and participation in the john school program.

Key Partners

  • Tacoma Police Department
  • Lakewood Police Department
  • Pierce County Sheriff’s Office
  • Metropolitan Development Council
  • Tacoma City Attorney’s Office
  • Community Based Services
  • Non-Governmental Organizations Addressing Demand:
    • Chamber of Commerce
    • Citizens Against Prostitution
    • Make Tacoma Safe, Clean, and Attractive
    • StopCrimeOnTacomaAve (a “youtube” channel offering video of prostitution transactions)
    • Safe Streets

Key Sources

State Washington
Type City
Population 196520
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