Tacoma, 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

Tacoma is a city in Washington state of approximately 220,000 residents, located in Southern Puget Sound, near Seattle, WA in Pierce County, WA. The city has been known to have prevalent prostitution, sex trafficking, and related crimes such as drug trafficking and assault. 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. Until the mid 1980’s, the Tacoma Police Department focused on arrests of prostituted persons rather than sex buyers. Among the more serious crimes associated with the city’s commercial sex market are child sex trafficking and the targeted homicide and serial killing of prostituted women. Other offenses occurring within prostitution transactions are the endangerment of children present, and child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, often called “child pornography” in state laws).

In efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex that drives all prostitution, trafficking, and co-occurring crimes, the Tacoma Police Department began conducting reverse stings in 1982. During these operations, an undercover female officer would pose as prostituted person in areas known for prostitution in the city. The identities of arrested sex buyers are not frequently released by police. The TPD began conducting web-based reverse stings in 2004, in which officers would posting decoy ads on websites known for prostitution and sex trafficking, communicate with potential sex buyers and arrange a price and location to meet. Upon their arrival to the predetermined location, undercover officers would arrest the sex buyers. For example, the Tacoma Police Department has participated in the FBI’s annual child sex trafficking initiative, Operation Cross County, since 2012.

In 2007, the TPD received a $100,000 federal grant to reduce the demand for prostitution on Pacific Avenue, an area known for having significant levels of prostitution activity. The TPD laid out a roadmap for combatting demand that included an increase in foot patrols in the area, implementing SOAP Orders for prostituted persons and sex buyers, providing the option for sex buyers to attend a ‘john school’ program, sending “Dear John” letters to registered owners of vehicles having been identified as patronizing prostituted people, posting warning signs stating its a “Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution” area, collaborating with neighborhoods and business owners on prevention strategies. One business owner increased the number of surveillance cameras monitoring the property with a sign that read, “Smile johns you’re on camera.”

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 male sex buyers 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 male sex buyers and the $500 fee that must be paid for their recovery.

Tacoma/Pierce County Regional John School

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.

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 schools are free to vary how the program fits within their criminal just process for arrestees. For example, because the john school is a regional option, judges may use as a condition of a sentence for men arrested for soliciting prostitution in Tacoma and for men arrested in Lakewood, it can be 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 program 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 male sex buyers as well as others)
  • personal safety risks (for male sex buyers as well as others)
  • dynamics of sex trafficking/pimping & prostitution
  • negative 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 male sex buyers 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.

Employment Loss, Identity Disclosure:

In March, 2018, a Tacoma pharmacist traded stolen pills for prostitution, according to the state Department of Health, which suspending his credentials. The man had diverted up to 8,000 oxycodone pills in 2017 from the pharmacy at which he worked, then told Lakewood police that he traded some of them for cash, other drugs, or “prostitutes,” a department investigation found. The pharmacy was missing 8,000 oxycodone tablets, and the suspect told police he had taken at least 2,000 of the pills from the pharmacy. The man told the Department of Health in a written statement that he had ordered and taken from the pharmacy various drugs, including oxycodone, and admitted that he gave some of the stolen pills to another person. A drug test in January showed the man had oxycodone, marijuana and tranquilizers in his system. The criminal case against the pharmacist was referred to Pierce County prosecutors for possible charges.

Key Partners

  • Tacoma Police Department
  • Pierce County Sheriff’s Office
  • Lakewood Police Department
  • Metropolitan Development Council
  • Tacoma City Attorney’s Office
  • Washington State Department of Health
  • 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

National Assessment Survey and Interview (2012)

John School:

  • “A New Approach to Stop the Oldest Profession: Tacoma, Lakewood, and Fife Team up to Tackle Prostitution,” Tacoma News Tribune, July 2 2005.
  • “First Men Pass John School, Where Everyone Knows Your Shame: Eight Offenders Graduate from John School, a Diversion Program for Men Caught Soliciting Streetwalkers in Tacoma, Lakewood, and Fife,” Tacoma News Tribune, October 25 2005.
  • Higher prostitution fines planned (2006)
  • “‘John School’ a New Approach to Fight an Age-Old Problem,” NBC/KING-TV 5, November 16 2007.
  • “In Tacoma, ‘Johns’ Get a Lesson on Prostitution,” KIRO-FM 97.3, April 23 2012.

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

Neighborhood Action, Cameras:

Community Service:

  • “Former Tacoma Judge Gets Community Service,” Seattle Times, November 19 2009.

SOAP Orders:

Employment Loss, Identity Disclosure:

Proposed (but not Adopted) Auto Seizure Ordinance:

Local Sex Trafficking, Child Sexual Exploitation, CSAM, Related Crimes:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Child Endangerment:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

State Washington
Type City
Population 219205
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