Annual ‘Sex Trafficking’ Crackdown Nets Zero Sex Traffickers Nationwide — and Far Fewer Johns Than Previous Iterations

Black-and-white closeup of a handcuffed hand.
(Victor via Flickr [cropped])
The demise of Backpage may help to explain the lackluster results of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart's recent "sex trafficking" dragnet

A monthlong, multistate crackdown that targeted the demand side of the sex trade this summer has reportedly resulted in less than half the number of arrests that were tallied during the same operation last year.

According to a story by Chicago Tribune reporter Matthew Walberg, “two dozen law enforcement agencies across 12 states” hit the streets from July 25 to August 26 for the National Johns Suppression Initiative (NJSI). The operation netted a total of 473 “sex buyers” — a nearly 54 percent decrease compared to 1,020 arrests for the same offense during the summer of 2017.

Begun in 2011 by Cook County (Chicago) Sheriff Tom Dart and funded in part by oil heiress Swanee Hunt’s anti-prostitution organization, Demand Abolition, the NJSI has collared thousands of people since its inception, largely on misdemeanor counts of either selling or purchasing sex.

Dart coordinates the nationwide dragnet twice each year, once in summer and once during the winter. Though its putative target is “sex trafficking,” the operation has yielded scant results in that area.

(Arrests were down for the most recent winter crackdown as well, but not by as much: Police pinched 638 sex buyers in February 2018 versus 723 in February 2017.)

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, an associate editor at Reason magazine, has reported extensively on Dart’s initiative and found it to be a colossal failure in terms of delivering on its stated mission. (According to federal law, “sex trafficking” is defined as involving minors in commercial sex, or inducing adults into sex work via force, fraud, or coercion.)

Demand Abolition offers inducements to agencies that are willing to take part in its initiative — but there are strings attached.

In a March 2018 article published in The Intercept, author Alison Bass detailed Demand Abolition’s financial contributions to prosecutors and law-enforcement agencies in Seattle and elsewhere and described what the nonprofit extracts in return: operations that target sex buyers, and liberal use of the often-misleading term “sex trafficking” in statements to the press.

In her coverage of the most recent law-enforcement effort, Brown tallied zero busts for sex trafficking, although eleven juveniles were rescued. Six people were arrested for pimping.

As Brown has noted in the past, juveniles rounded up in such dragnets tend to be teen runaways who are engaged in so-called survival sex — sex work solely for the sake of subsistence.

The operation does nab plenty of adult men for seeking consensual commercial sex with adult women — otherwise known as prostitution. For example, according to a press release from the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, the 2016 summer crackdown resulted in more than 1,300 such arrests, setting “a record.”

That figure was boosted in no small part by law enforcement’s use of Backpage.com. Prior to its seizure by the FBI in April, the online listings giant hosted classified ads for a wide array of goods and services, including apartment rentals, yard sales, job offers, and adult listings for escorts, body rubs, strippers, and the like.

Politicians and anti-trafficking activists insisted that the adult ads were thinly veiled come-ons for prostitution and called on Backpage to stop accepting them. The website acceded in January 2017, shuttering its adult-services category. Some adult advertising simply migrated to the website’s personals section, but that too ended in April, when the FBI took Backpage offline as part of a 93-count indictment of seven former and current owners of the site on charges related to facilitating prostitution, conspiracy, and money laundering. (Editor’s note: Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, the publishers of Front Page Confidential, were among those arrested. They co-founded Backpage in 2004 and sold it in 2015.)

Some in law enforcement have complained that the seizure has made their jobs more difficult by removing a tool that had proved useful in locating and rescuing victims of sex trafficking.

The seizure also eliminated a means by which police could post fake adult ads in order to lure unsuspecting johns into prostitution stings. Cook County claimed that 60 percent of the 1,300 arrests in the summer of 2016 “stemmed from online advertisements, of which 99 percent were on Backpage.com.”

By contrast, Walberg reported in the recent Chicago Tribune story, the lion’s share of the 473 arrests made in August 2018 came about through “street-level reverse stings.”

Walberg described how Dart’s operation used an “artificial intelligence bot” to snooker johns into believing they were corresponding with sex workers online. Once individuals began discussing prices, they received a text labeled “A message from the Cook County Sheriff,” warning them that what they were doing is a crime and that they could be contacted in the future as part of a criminal investigation.

Dart’s office did not respond to Front Page Confidential’s calls and emails seeking comment.

Backpage’s demise might not be the sole factor for the initiative’s declining busts.

Some law enforcement agencies that have participated in the past are opting out. Whereas the recent operation involved two dozen agencies in 12 states, last year’s participants encompassed 37 agencies across 17 states. Dart’s press release offered no explanation for the drop.

An article in the Waco Tribune  quoted a sheriff’s deputy who said that arrests during the dragnet “are primarily all misdemeanors” — a time-consuming process.

As a result, the Waco agency has decided to focus on going after actual sex traffickers and did not take part in this summer’s round-up.

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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