The reverse sting—also known as a “john sting” or “john operation”— is the most commonly used type of anti-demand tactic, having been used in more than 1,590 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 over 940 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.
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 through web searches. From the original study, which ended in April 2012, and the subsequent research through 2018 necessary for the maintenance and updating of Demand Forum, we have compiled over 15,000 documents and links that contribute to the empirical foundation of this research and what is presented on this website. We have gathered information on over 5,000 reverse stings occurring since 1964 in over 1,585 U.S. cities and counties, resulting in over 46,000 arrests of sex buyers.
Overview of Reverse Stings in the U.S.
- Reverse Sting Overview from National Assessment (PDF, 251KB)
“Police Magazine” Articles on Planning and Safety for Reverse Stings
- How to plan a “john” sting. Police Magazine, April 18, 2012.
- How to stay safe during a john sting. Police Magazine, July 2, 2012.
Reverse Sting Tactical Plan
- Knoxville Reverse Sting Tactical Plan Template (PDF, 43KB)
Police Department Press Releases on Reverse Stings
- Windsor Locks CT Press Release November 2017
- Manchester NH Prostitution Press Release January 2017
- Oskosh WI Prostitution Press Release December 2017
- Baton Rouge, LA Police Department Press Release, December 12, 2010 (PDF, 36.6KB)
- Costa Mesa, CA John Sting Police Press Release (PDF, 25.1KB)
- Mount Laurel, MD Police Department Press Release, July 12, 2012 (PDF, 26.1KB)
- Chicago Police Department Web Page for Prostitution Arrests (as of January 2018)
- Oakland Police Department Web Page on Prostitution Arrests (as of January 2018)
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 assignments. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 7(2):71-85.
- Nolan, T.W. (2001). Commentary: Galateas in blue: Women police as decoy sex workers. Criminal 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-2007-10-05-0008.html/
- Hay, B. (2003). Sting operations, undercover agents, and entrapment. Harvard 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
- Bellevue, WA (September, 2017)
- Dayton, OH (2012, 2016)
- Harris County, Texas (October, 2017)
- Huntington, WV (June, 2013)
- Lancaster, PA (June, 2013)
- Lawrence, MA (June, 2013)
- McLennan County, TX (August, 2017)
- Miami, FL (March, 2008)
- North Laurel, MD (May, 2013)
- Philadelphia, PA (June 2013)
- Joint operation: Cranston & Pawtucket, RI
News Reports on Brothel-Based Reverse Stings