Upper Merion Township is a Montgomery County suburb of Philadelphia, with a population of about 27,000. Prostitution and sex trafficking have been identified by residents and law enforcement as substantial problems in Upper Merion and throughout the county, including nearby communities such as Norristown, Montgomery Township, and Pottstown. Upper Merion appears to be a staging area for prostitution activity in the greater metro Philadelphia area, and police report that they often see well over 100 online ads for sex in Upper Merion and nearby towns, such as King of Prussia, Wilmington, Princeton and Atlantic City. A large-scale, federally-led operation to rescue trafficked persons and apprehend pimps in January, 2014 included local law enforcement agencies in Bensalem Township, Tinicum Township, and Upper Merion, and, in New Jersey, Atlantic City, Galloway Township, and Egg Harbor City. In 2006 a man who had been charged with killing a prostituted woman in Philadelphia and had posted bail while awaiting trial was arrested for patronizing a prostituted woman in Upper Merion, when a hotel manager recognized the man’s face from news reports (the man’s bail was revoked).
In February 2014, law enforcement officials announced a plan to combat prostitution and sex trafficking in Montgomery County, featuring more aggressive enforcement (i.e., reverse stings) and more severe penalties (including increased fines and shaming) for sex buyers. Explaining the reasons for this focus, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferma said:
“We’re going to start aggressively going after those customers of this criminal activity in an effort to deter them from coming into our community and engaging in these acts. We’re letting people know that, whereas in the past they might have simply gotten a citation, we’re going to be making arrests and those arrests will be public and people will be charged criminally and there will be consequences for their actions if they engage in this activity… There are a number of different problems that we’ve identified, and law enforcement professionals who have come together to work on this have concluded that the best way, right now, for us to try to tackle it would be to go after the customers. I think if people know that there is a possibility that they will get more than a summary citation, that they will be arrested and it will be a public arrest… that may discourage them from coming in to the community in the first place.”
The plan includes shaming: Arrest information, including photographs of offenders, will be released to the public. Prostitution and patronizing prostitutes are third-degree misdemeanors for first-time offenders and the maximum penalty upon conviction is up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Penalties increase for repeat offenders.
According to reports of the announcement, the plan involves the District Attorney’s office working initially with police in Upper Merion and Montgomery townships because those areas are home to numerous hotels that are often used for commercial sex in order to shield their actions from view. During the prior five years, Upper Merion police have reportedly noticed “a significant increase” in prostitution offenses in township hotels, according to the DA, who said that between 2011 and 2013 there was a 56 percent increase in prostitution crimes in Upper Merion.
The enforcement initiative is a response to complaints from the public and business community about prostitution activities that occur at hotels, which fuels other crimes with detrimental impacts on the community. The public has been asked by the DA’s office to report suspicious activity to local police.
In June, 2015, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and Upper Merion Township Police Chief Thomas Nolan announced the arrest of five men on charges of patronizing prostitution. The joint law enforcement initiative was conducted to investigate and prosecute those committing crimes related to human trafficking and commercial sex , and focused specifically on local hotels. A decoy online advertisement for prostitution services was posted that received hundreds of responses via phone calls and text messages. The identities of the five arrestees were publicly released. In February 2019, the community participated in the 17th operation of the National Johns Suppression Initiative, and conducted a web-based reverse sting that resulted in the arrest of four men who were charged with attempting to arrange sex with a minor.
- Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office
- Upper Merion Township Police Department
- Reverse stings:
- Web-Based Reverse Sting:
- Background on local prostitution and sex trafficking: