Whatcom County, 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

Whatcom County is a county of approximately 230,000 residents in Northern Washington state. It is situated directly north of Seattle, and the county’s northern border is the US border with the Canadian province of British Columbia. The county seat and largest city is Bellingham, WA. Research on the history of Whatcom County found that prostitution was legal in Bellingham for a 90-year period, in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the early 1900s, international sex trafficking rings smuggled women from Asia to the United States (into Washington and Oregon), and historical records show that women who refused or initially resisted engaging in prostitution were beaten until they complied. Since the 1980s, the county has several areas with some level of street-level prostitution, and indoor prostitution is known to occur in hotels and storefront brothels (such as nail salons). Complaints from the community play a large role in police conducting anti-prostitution operations. The rise of internet advertising has encouraged the spread of prostitution outside of “stroll” or brothels, to virtually anywhere in the county.

Some of the prostitution-related effort of county and city law enforcement is directed toward attempting to deter consumer-level demand. Both street-level and web-based reverse stings have been conducted, and the identities of arrested sex buyers released to local media outlets. For example, in June of 2015, a two-day, web-based reverse sting operation focused on individuals seeking to solicit sex from prostituted persons online. Officers posted decoy ads on websites known for prostitution and sex trafficking, and arranged to meet with potential sex buyers who had responded to the ads. As a result of the investigation, six male sex buyers responded to the ads and were arrested upon their arrival to the predetermined location. The identities and ages of arrested sex buyers were released to news outlets.

In December 2017, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office participated in a web-based reverse sting investigation, Operation “Net Nanny,” led by the Washington State Patrol’s Missing and Exploited Children Task Force, focusing on apprehending individuals seeking to sexually exploit minors in exchange for money online and identify victims of child sex trafficking and exploitation. During the operation, undercover officers communicated through various websites known for prostitution and sex trafficking, with individuals interested in sexually exploit minors in exchange for money. According to reports, the operation generated hundreds of responses. As a result of the investigation, 20 male sex buyers were arrested. All arrested offenders had traveled to meet with undercover detectives posing as young girls and boys, with the intent to engage in sexual activity with them. Most of the men were arrested on suspicion of attempted child rape and attempted communication with a minor for immoral purposes. During the operation, undercover agents posted Craigslist ads online advertising for meet ups of a sexual nature, according to Whatcom County Superior Court records. Charges included second-degree child rape, communicating with a minor for immoral purposes, and prostituting/patronizing a minor.

In February 2018, Bellingham Police arrested at eight people on prostitution-related charges. Police Lt. Danette Beckley said the arrests were made as part of joint operation among officers from the Bellingham Police Department, the North-Central Sound Child Exploitation Task Force, including agents and detectives from the FBI and the Seattle Police Department. Lt. Beckley said in a statement, “Friday’s arrests are the latest effort as law enforcement continues to work at reducing the demand for prostitutes and ending human trafficking.” Police Department online daily activity reports and booking records at the Whatcom County Jail showed one King County man booked on a felony charge of promoting prostitution and seven men charged with misdemeanor counts of patronizing a prostitute.

Key Partners

Key Sources

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

  • “Police Button up Downtown Sex Trade; Crime: Citizen Complaints Lead to Crackdown, Citing of Men and Women for Prostitution, Patronizing a Prostitute,” Bellingham Herald, July 18 2003.

Web-Based Reverse Stings, Identity Disclosure:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

State Washington
Type County
Population 229247
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