Washington, DC

Tactics Used

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

Washington DC has experienced well-documented, persistent problems with prostitution and sex trafficking for decades. At the extreme end of the scale, the local problems have included more than one serial killer who specifically targeted sex sellers and trafficked persons in the city.  Since about 2010, gangs in the greater DC metro area have systematically diversified their “business model” by trafficking teenage girls and young women for prostitution.  Cases of MS-13 gang involvement in regional and international trafficking have been investigated and arrests were made in 2013 (e.g., Fairfax County).  Localized child sex trafficking is also present, such as a case in December 2013, in which a D.C. police officer was charged with running a prostitution ring involving an 16-year-old girl out of his apartment.

DC was among the first cities in the U.S. to target the demand side of commercial sex markets in order to ameliorate problems associated with prostitution and sex trafficking in the city and surrounding area.  The first reverse sting in the District occurred in 1970, and the operations have occurred on a routine basis since about 1980.  In a survey response for the National Assessment, the Metropolitan Police Department reported that street-level reverse stings occur “nightly.”  The city conducted its first web-based reverse sting via Craigslist in 2007; more recently, officers arrested over 50 johns in January and February 2015 in web-based reversals in the Thomas Circle area.

Street-level operations are also conducted on a routine basis; for example, a large-scale joint sting and reverse sting was conducted over a 36-hour period in October 2013, resulting in the arrest of 60 individuals during street-level operations conducted as part of a program called “Operation Off the Streets.” In November 2014, police carried out a two-day operation targeting prostitutes and customers, making 19 arrests between 2:30 p.m. one day and 6:30 a.m. the next. In April 2017 a street level reverse sting produced 8 arrests. Note that the frequency of these operations fluctuates in response to a number of factors, including competing demands for law enforcement resources and attention and police budgets.

Washington established a john school program in 1998, according to some reports, and in 2001 according to others.  The program was run with regularity through the next decade, but was suspended, restarted, and then discontinued by 2010.  The program was modeled after the First Offender Prostitution Program in San Francisco.  The fee for the program was $300, and the fee revenue was used to help support programs for survivors of commercial sex and trafficking (i.e., the Bridges Diversion Program).  The john school was a diversion program: successful completion resulted in a dismissal of charges.  Key partners in the DC program were the Metropolitan Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the DC Department of Health, commercial sex survivors and members of the community, and NGOs such as My Sister’s Place and the Polaris Project.  According to some reports, the program had problems in its implementation, and these contributed to the john school’s demise.

Washington has also used SOAP orders and public education/awareness campaigns to deter sex buyers and rally support in the community to curtail their behavior, and sentenced some buyers to community service as a form of restitution.



Key Partners

  • Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department
  • U.S. Attorney’s Office
  • Washington D.C. Department of Health
  • Sister’s Place
  • Polaris Project
  • Fulton Hoiuse of Hope
  • Eleuthera Institute
  • Fair Girls
  • Community members and commercial sex survivors

Key Sources

State District of Columbia
Type City
Population 588292
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