|IT Based Tactics||✓|
Upper Merion Township is a Montgomery County suburb of Philadelphia, with a population of about 31,000. 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 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a prostituted woman in Upper Merion, when a hotel manager recognized the man’s face from news reports (the man’s bail was revoked).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 identity disclosure) 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 included identity disclosure: Arrest information, including photographs of offenders, were 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 involved the District Attorney’s office working initially with police in Upper Merion and Montgomery townships because those areas were 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 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 was 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 was 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.
IT-based tactics have been incorporated into the multi-site demand reduction operations coordinated by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. Since 2011, the Cook County (IL) Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) has been coordinating periodic reverse sting operations occurring simultaneously in multiple cities throughout the United States. The collaborative effort was initially called the “National Day of John Arrests,” and then in 2015 was renamed National Johns Suppression Initiative (NJSI). The coalition of agencies that participate in these coordinated enforcement efforts grew from eight to more than 100. The 19 NJSI operations from 2011 through 2021 have involved the collaboration of over 140 law enforcement agencies, and have collectively produced the arrests of more than 10,000 sex buyers. Since August 2018, some of the NJSI operations have incorporated the use of decoy internet ads that connected to an AI bot, created by Childsafe.ai. The bot interacts with sex buyers to the point where it sends a deterrence message warning of the legal and social dangers of prostitution and sex trafficking.
Initially, the Cook County Sheriff’s Police and eight other agencies utilized the bot, including the principle police departments and sheriff’s offices in Boston, MA; Des Moines, WA; McHenry County, IL; New York, NY; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Tarrant County, TX; and Upper Merion Township, PA. Across several subsequent NJSI operations, 18 cities and counties used the Childsafe.ai bots to combat demand.
The childsafe bot and other similar products can continuously scrape data or monitor “signal” from open source electronic communications, analyze the raw input, and flag messages as probably depicting a commercial sex offer or transaction. They also engage buyers in some form of interaction designed to deter individuals from attempting to purchase sex, at the present “point of purchase” moment as well as in the future. This approach seeks to disrupt (and ultimately collapse) commercial sex markets by reducing demand.
- Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office
- Upper Merion Township Police Department
- http://www.delcotimes.com/montco-da-declares-war-on-illegal-sex-trade-will-target-johns (2014)
- http://www.thereporteronline.com/montco-da-unveils-initiative-cracking-down-on-illegal-sex-trade (2014)
- http://www.timesherald.com/montgomery-county-district-attorney-unveils-crackdown-on-illegal-sex-trade (2014)
- http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/montco-setting-up-john-stings-to-cut-down-on-prostitution-in-county (2014)
- http://www.philly.com/Sex_crimes_to_receive_more_attention_in_Montco__police_say.html (2014)
- http://www.dailylocal.com/chesco-men-caught-up-in-prostitution-sting (2015)
Web-Based Reverse Sting:
Background on Local Prostitution and Sex Trafficking:
- http://www.phillymag.com/prostitutes-flocking-to-upper-merion (2010)