Reverse Stings

The reverse sting—also known as a “john sting” or “john operation”— is the most commonly used type of anti-demand tactic, having been implemented in more than 2,045 U.S. cities and counties. These police decoy operations deploy officers posing as women engaged in prostitution or children who are victims of sex trafficking, awaiting approaches by people attempting to purchase sex. There are three main types of reverse stings:

1. Street-level
Here police officers pose as adult women engaged in street-level prostitution. On average, the law enforcement support team is comprised of about seven officers for each decoy. Smaller departments may borrow female officers from another department if they don’t have enough officers to serve as effective decoys. Locations are usually chosen on the basis of complaints from residents or businesses and sometimes from police observations about problem areas. Some police departments conduct reverse stings near venues that draw large numbers of men, such as truck stops or male-oriented events (such as business conventions, sporting events, or during hunting season). The average reverse sting runs about four hours and results in about one to two arrests per hour, per decoy.
2. Web-based
Web-based reverse stings, used in more than 1,330 U.S. cities and counties, involve police posting online decoy ads and setting up a reverse sting at a hotel or apartment. Some of these operations target predators seeking to purchase sex from minors: online ads placed by undercover investigators mention that the person being sold is young ( without explicitly stating that they are under-age, which is illegal to post and would be flagged or blocked on most websites), and during communications with people responding to those ads, investigators clearly state an age below legal limits (typically between 12 and 16 years).  A variation of this basic approach of police posting ads seeking to draw sex buyers and child predators features having police responding to real online ads and replacing prostituted persons with police decoys, then continuing to take calls from johns on the phone being used to field calls about the prostituted or trafficked person. Another variation involves undercover police decoys responding to online ads placed by johns seeking to buy sex. To learn more about web reversals, click here.
3. Brothel-based
In this type of reverse sting, police investigate brothels, make arrests, replace brothel staff with decoys, and continue fielding calls and walk-ins from johns in order to make arrests. This is not a widespread tactic, known to have been used in approximately 35 locations in the U.S., so we have not devoted a separate webpage to it. The tactic is described in the basic reverse sting overview below.

While most reverse stings are initiated locally in response to investigative leads or community complaints, there have been efforts to coordinate periodic reverse stings across the United States.  The “National Johns Suppression Initiative” is an effort led by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which has been coordinating operations occurring simultaneously in multiple cities since 2011.  The collaborative effort was initially called the “National Day of John Arrests,” and the present name was adopted in 2015.  The coalition of agencies that participate in these coordinated enforcement efforts has grown from eight to more than 50 for a single operation.  For example, the National Johns Suppression Initiative (NJSI) event occurring in July of 2017 involved 37 law enforcement agencies in 17 states that conducting sting operations producing the arrests of 1,020 sex buyers and and 15 sex traffickers, and 81 individuals involved in commercial sex were offered services.  The 18 NJSI operations from 2011 through July, 2019 have involved the collaboration of over 140 law enforcement agencies, and have collectively produced the arrests of over 9,500 sex buyers.  Also produced in these operations has been evidence leading to additional charges such as adult and juvenile felony sex trafficking, criminal solicitation of a minor, pimping, promotion of adult and juvenile prostitution, human trafficking, drug trafficking,  possession of illegal firearms, and arrests for outstanding warrants.  These operations have also led to the rescue of child sex trafficking victims, the seizure of numerous vehicles used in the commission of crime, and the imposition of thousands of dollars in fines.  In many jurisdictions, the arrested sex buyers are shown a brief video version of a “john school” presentation while they are being processed.  Since 2019, the NJSI operations have also deployed decoy internet ads linked to artificial intelligence (AI) bots that interacted with thousands of johns, providing messages meant to deter their behavior.

Resources for Reverse Stings

In our National Assessment project we observed reverse stings in several cities, interviewed or surveyed nearly 200 police officers about these operations, and collected over 5,000 documents from local experts and obtained through web searches. From the original study, which ended in April 2012, and the subsequent research necessary for the maintenance and updating of Demand Forum through the present in 2019, we have compiled over 25,000 documents and links to source materials that contribute to the empirical foundation for the information presented on this website. We have gathered information on over 5,000 reverse stings occurring in the United States since 1964 that have resulted in over 50,000 arrests of sex buyers.

Overview of Reverse Stings in the U.S.

Police Magazine” Articles on Planning and Safety for Reverse Stings

Reverse Sting Tactical Plan

Police Department Press Releases on Reverse Stings

Research and Police Department Reports About Decoys and Reverse Sting Operations

  • Newman, G.R. (2007). Sting Operations. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services: Problem Oriented Guides for Police Response Guides Series, #6. www.cops.usdoj.gov/Publications/e10079110.pdf (PDF, 904.4KB)
  • Dodge, M., Starr-Gimeno, D., & Williams, T. (2005). Puttin’ on the sting: Women police officers’ perspectives on reverse prostitution assignmentsInternational Journal of Police Science and Management, 7(2):71-85.
  • Nolan, T.W. (2001). Commentary: Galateas in blue: Women police as decoy sex workersCriminal Justice Ethics, 20(2):63-67.
  • Elofson, M. (2007). Female police employees used as decoys for prostitution sting.  Dothan Eagle, October 5. http://www2.dothaneagle.com/gulfcoasteast/dea/local_news.apx.-content-articles-DEA-2007/
  • Hay, B. (2003). Sting operations, undercover agents, and entrapmentHarvard Law School John M. Olin Center for Law Economics and Business Discussion Paper Series. Paper 441.
  • Spruill, R. (2009). Undercover operation: Deputy poses as prostitute. Anderson, South Carolina: Independentmail.com. Available at: http://www.independentmail.com/news/2009/sep/26/undercover-operation-deputy-poses-prostitute/
  • Ayala, J., & White, J. (2008). Operation Spotlight. Arlington, Texas: Arlington Police Department. http://www.popcenter.org/library/awards/goldstein/2008/08-01(F).pdf (PDF, 4,769.1KB)
  • Baker, L.M. (2004). The information needs of female police officers involved in undercover police work. Information Research, 10(1):1-12.

News Reports on Early Use of Reverse Sting Operations

  • News report on 1974 reverse sting:
    • “Prostitution police focus on the men.” July 13, 1974, the Baltimore Sun. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

 News Reports on Contemporary Reverse Stings

News Reports on Brothel-Based Reverse Stings