The Dayton and Cincinnati police departments were among those that participated in a nationwide sting operation last week targeting men attempting to buy sex. Focusing on “johns” has become a key strategy in law enforcement’s battle against prostitution.
Called “Operation: Buyer Beware,” the initiative was the third in the past year coordinated by the Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Office that included police detectives posing as prostitutes and posting ads on the website backpage.com. Men responded, arrived at a location operated by police, made a deal with an undercover female detective and were arrested. In four days, the Dayton Police Department arrested nine johns, towed six vehicles and confiscated $890.
For years, police said, their focus was arresting prostitutes, especially those working on the street. Digital technologies have allowed prostitutes and human trafficking networks to communicate with customers in a variety of ways, which is why detectives have turned more attention to online activity in attempt to decrease demand by targeting solicitors. The fight has occurred more in bigger cities, where men from suburbs and surrounding areas travel to find prostitutes, police said.
It’s a significant change in attitude, said Dayton police Sgt. Chris Fischer.
“They used to send me out as a rookie in plainclothes and say, ‘Go get the girls, I want six arrests tonight,’ ” Fischer said. “We would catch them in the act, in cars, in back alleys, and it was always the girl arrested. The guy would be let go without any questions or even getting his name.”
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Now, men are the focus. Police use a variety of tactics including the sting operations, John Schools — mandatory classes for men arrested for soliciting prostitution — and “Dear John” letters, sent to homes of residents whose vehicles are seen frequently traveling high-prostitution areas.
Experts say the fight against prostitution is important because it often includes individuals who are involved in other crimes. As part of that fight, they are turning more attention to the demand.
“People who sell other human beings will sell drugs and sell weapons,” said Mark Ensalaco, director of human rights research at the University of Dayton. “(Targeting those who solicit) is starting to happen around the country, and it’s a bold, wise initiative.”
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office coordinated its first “National Day of Johns Arrests” in October 2011, with eight participating agencies. The effort netted 216 arrests.
During the weekend of the Super Bowl in February, a second “National Day of Johns Arrests” was coordinated. This time, 14 agencies, including the Dayton Police Department, took part in making 565 arrests.
The efforts underline what experts call a growing effort to think of prostitutes often as victims of human trafficking or abuse and less as criminals. Also on the weekend of the Super Bowl, Men of Action, a Dayton-based group focused on decreasing the demand for human trafficking, traveled to host city Indianapolis to raise awareness and inform hotel staffs about the signs of human trafficking.
Men of Action, working with the group Saving Our Adolescents from Prostitution (S.O.A.P.), helped three women who were victims of human trafficking, said Men of Action co-founder Todd Circele.
“That helped us realize this is happening locally and in Ohio,” Circele said. “We needed to take action.”
From the law enforcement side, that action included the third coordinated effort in a year to bust johns. WHIO-TV, which was provided access to one of the Dayton operations last week, captured video of a man before he was arrested. Sitting next to the undercover female detective he thought was a prostitute, he asked, “Are you sure you’re not a cop?” She answered, “Do I look like a cop?” He said, “I hope not.”
On Aug. 14, when Dayton police detectives posted their ad, they received about two dozen phone calls. By Friday, there were three, which Fischer said signaled awareness was spreading.
“They know we cruise the Internet,” Fischer said. “Why would calls drop from 24 to three? Because this is an effective way of doing it.”
In studying prostitution demand reduction efforts, research firm Abt Associates reported to the National Institute of Justice that the first reverse sting — one involving a police officer posing as a prostitute — occurred in Nashville, Tenn., in 1964. The first reverse sting on the Internet was reported in 1995 in Everett, Wash., and that option has become increasingly desirable for police.
In its June report, Abt Associates said nine Ohio cities and counties have used web stings to battle prostitution demand. In all, 286 agencies in the country have used the tactic, the report said.
Police said they have targeted activity on the web because it continues to be a significant source for prostitution.
“This is a very encouraging development,” Ensalaco said. “(Law enforcement) has shown the proper attitude in thinking of the women involved in the sex trade as potentially victims, not perps. Many of them have been coerced, and that really gets to the question of sex trafficking.”
Last week’s efforts come as Ohio is trying to take a stronger stance on human trafficking. In June, the legislature passed House Bill 262, which strengthened penalties for human trafficking, for buyers as well as those controlling the prostitutes.
Officials hope the new laws combined with new focus will have an effect on the sex trade in Ohio.
“The demand is there,” Fischer said. “The girls might think it’s safer on the Internet, but they run into the same creeps. It’s a problem on both sides.”