Waco, TX

Tactics Used

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

Waco is a city of about 138,400 residents in McLennan County in central Texas, located along an interstate highway (Rt. 35) that links the Dallas/Fort Worth area with Austin, and is home to Baylor University. The city has long recognized that a substantial prostitution market operates locally. Cases of sex trafficking of children and the murder of prostituted women are among the problems associated with the local commercial sex market.

In July, 2017 McLennan County Sheriff’s Deputies arrested over 70 men in a month long effort to combat demand. In late 2017 and early 2018, another large scale effort to arrest sex buyers was conducted, but was not a conventional reverse sting.  Instead, it was based on the video equivalent of a brothel”client list.” An investigation of prostitution and sex trafficking in massage parlors in Waco discovered hidden cameras in the massage rooms showing approximately 400 persons involved in sex acts with the trafficking victims, according to McLennan County Sheriff’s Office.  In the first few months of 2018, police continued the investigation and were able to identify over 50 of the sex buyers.  Many of the men arrested were found using the surveillance footage, which allegedly showed some of the men attempting to force themselves on women after they completed massages at the business.  In April 2018, a Mertens Volunteer Fire Department firefighter and four other men turned themselves in to police and were charged with Class B misdemeanor prostitution. According to arrest affidavits, each of the men paid for sex services between October and November, 2017. The alleged operator of the businesses was arrested and charged with forcing women to work at the business and perform sex acts in exchange for money.

The historically dominant tactic of arresting prostituted women and girls did not produce noticeable impact on the prevalence of prostitution, so in the early 1990s police began conducting reverse stings.  A Waco Police Department patrol officer, Anita Johnson, initiated an effort to develop an educational program for arrested sex buyers.  She used the First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP) in San Francisco as a model, and adapted it to fit local conditions, such as the availability of people qualified and available to provide presentations on particular topics.  She also has deviated from the FOPP model by adding novel topics and presenters.   For example, the Waco John’s school has a presentation by the former wife of a sex buyer, detailing the impact of her former husband’s involvement in commercial sex on her personally, and on their family.

Presentation slides created by WPD Officer Johnson describes the Waco John School program (for the presentation, click HERE), including:

  • program objectives
  • eligibility requirements
  • program completion requirements
  • process of admission and completion
  • curriculum outline and class agenda
  • summary of the content of separate presentation topics

The Waco john school has several noteworthy features that can be helpful to other smaller cities considering establishing such programs.  For example, most john schools that operate in larger cities meet monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly.  To operate efficiently, police must feed participants into the program by conducting frequent reverse sting operations.  This is appropriate and sustainable for many larger cities, but monthly or weekly reverse stings are either unnecessary in smaller cities, or not feasible given the resources available to smaller police departments.  The Waco program was properly scaled for the needs and resources of the community.  The police department generally conducts a small number of reverse stings each year; therefore, WPD decided to hold just one john school class per year.  A benefit of a single class per year is that staffing the program with presenters who volunteer their services requires a relatively small commitment on their part – they can contribute to the john school by committing a small number of hours just one day each year, rather than being obligated to conduct monthly or quarterly sessions.

The small number of participants annually means that the Waco program would be unable to provide a substantial revenue stream or restorative justice kinds of programs, such as those in Nashville and San Francisco where hundreds of john school participants each year provide revenue that is used for survivor support programs.  While the WPD did not structure the john school as a restorative justice program, they were able to make it self-sustaining financially, by calibrating the fees to fully cover program costs.

As we have observed in many other cities with john schools, the Waco program has seen fluctuations in the number of men made available as participants due to a reduction and increases in police resources, and a corresponding variation in reverse sting activity necessary to generate program participants.  A second version of the program began in 2016: The Stop Demand School offered by a faith based organization, with a curriculum similar to the original Waco john school program.  As of October 2018, the Stop Demand School classes are offered on a monthly basis in McLennan County, and expansion to other sites in Texas was planned for 2019.

In 2018, another shift occurred in how local law enforcement handles prostitution cases: instead of focusing on the source of the problems of prostitution and sex trafficking (consumer-level demand), the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement agencies are now focusing on reacting to its symptoms (those who respond to consumer demand by exploiting victims).  The shift from prevention to symptom management can be traced to evidence obtained in an investigation in 2017, including video recording of over 400 men engaging in sex acts for cash at two Waco massage parlors.  Only 13 either have been adjudicated or have had prosecution pending on misdemeanor prostitution charges. The seized videos demonstrated the scope of local human trafficking offenses, but the task of  identifying 400 men and building misdemeanor cases that could stand up in court is time-consuming and expensive. So, investigators ultimately shifted focus to rescuing victims and going after traffickers.

In the summer of 2018, for the first time since 2016, the sheriff’s office did not participate in the bi-annual National Johns Suppression Initiative. The nationwide effort focuses on sex buyers, or johns, rather than the prostitutes and has received local and national attention for most of this decade. When it participated, McLennan County consistently ranked in the top 10 among major metropolitan agencies. In McLennan County, most of the arrests for prostitution charges are listed as Class B misdemeanors, punishable by up to 180 days in a county jail and a fine of up to $2,000. Most people arrested on a Class B misdemeanor prostitution charge with no criminal history can get deferred probation.  A Chief Deputy of of the Sheriff’s Office said,

“The john suppression effort is a great effort, but they are primarily all misdemeanors. We’ve proven we can fill our books with misdemeanor arrests that are time consuming to do, but the bottom line is that the people who are making money off sex buying, the ones that are facilitating it, the ones that are bringing people to our country to use in sex acts, those are the people that we cannot lose focus on.

This shift from focus on primary prevention (attacking root cause of human trafficking) in favor of reacting to the trafficking that occurs is in direct opposition to evidence-based practice.  For decades, law enforcement throughout the U.S. had focused on arresting and prosecuting pimps and traffickers, and identifying and rescuing victims.  The rise of demand-side tactics occurred in response to the lack of results from decades of supply-side tactics alone. Through the late 1990s in Waco, the new focus on demand was initiated precisely because of the ineffectiveness of arresting the providers and attempting to make cases against pimps and traffickers. The 2018 shift in Waco and McLennan County reverts back to that failed approach, albeit one that is improved by using a less punitive approach with the providers of commercial sex. While addressing supply and distribution are essential to a comprehensive, balanced effort, there is no evidence that supply-side approaches alone have a significant impact on prevalence.  They are inherently reactive, manage the symptoms but ignoring the cause.  There is substantial evidence that focusing on demand can reduce the scope of the problem – and consequently, lower the economic incentive for sex traffickers and pimps, and reduce the number of victims needed to serve the market.


Key Partners

  • Waco Police Department
  • Waco Municipal Court
  • McLennan County Health Department
  • Brook Oakes Neighborhood Association
  • The Freeman Center
  • Presenter affiliated with the VAO-Hutchins Comprehensive Sanctions Center for the Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • Stop Demand School (2nd version of Waco john school)

Key Sources

State Texas
Type City
Population 138441
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