Civil Liberties

Hundreds Arrested in FBI-Sponsored Prostitution Sting

Operation Cross Country is billed as a way to rescue sex-trafficked children but it's essentially a federally funded vice sting.


Steve Rhodes/Flickr

On Wednesday the FBI announced the results of its latest "Operation Cross Country" initiative, an annual effort ostensibly concerned with thwarting child sex-trafficking in America. And indeed, the FBI's press release (and all the media that copy-pasted it) heralds "the recovery of 149 sexually exploited children" nationwide.

Read a little closer, however, and a different picture emerges. Along with the recovered "children"—all but one teenagers, and potentially selling sex of their own accord (more on that later)—officials also found hundreds of adult sex workers and their clients to arrest. Police also used the opportunity to book myriad people for things like drug possession and parole violations. Essentially, what we have here is a massive, coordinated, and federally funded vice sting.

Operation Cross Country has been operating since 2003, as part of the FBI's "Innocence Lost National Initiative." This year's fiasco—the largest in its history—involved partnerships between the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and 73 state and local Child Exploitation Task Forces, leading to sting operations in 135 cities. More than 500 law enforcement officials and 90 FBI victim-specialists worked on these stings, which took place in hotels, casinos, truck strops, "and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes, and their customers," according to the FBI. The Bureau also notes the arrest of "more than 150 pimps (in addition to) other individuals."

Just who are these "other individuals"? Few of the participating cities have released many details. Those that have are mostly vague, using layman's terms ("we took down one pimp," "25 others arrested for prostitution-related offenses," etc.) rather than noting actual legal charges. But by combing both the FBI field-office statements and local news accounts, I've been able to find out some more info about these stings, which is presented below.

But first, a note on the victims: Federal law defines any minor engaged in prostitution as a sex-trafficking victim, even if they have no trafficker or pimp. Because officials will only provide the vaguest info, we have no way of knowing whether the minors recovered in Operation Cross Country IX—which included three teen boys and three transgender teens—were being forced into prostitution or working on their own. Reliable research on teens in the sex trade repeatedly shows that the vast majority do not have a "pimp" or trafficker.

The reason this makes a difference is not because I think teens should be selling sex instead of going to high school, but because the solutions the two scenarios need are quite different. If most teenagers selling sex are forced into doing so at the hands of violent sex traffickers, police-centered investigations, stings, and raids make sense. If most are doing so because they've found themselves in a bad situation and this is the best way to survive—homeless teens and runaways make up a huge percentage of minors engaged in sex work—then solutions should be much more oriented toward emergency shelter and service provision.

As it is, U.S. cops take a dissonant approach to minors in prostitution. Confess their victimhood, and teens can be saved. Refuse to, and they're frequently booked on prostitution charges. In 2012, for instance, the 136 male and 443 female minors were arrested for "prostitution and commercialized vice" by state and local authorities, according to the State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons report. During last year's Operation Cross Country stings, Yuma, Arizona, police arrested one 16-year-old sex worker after she refused to help officers identify her parents. They also broke the arm of her 20-year-old work partner while putting the young woman in handcuffs.

Operation Cross Country IV: State-by-State Victim & Arrest Data*

Alaska: No minor victims were found and no arrests were made, though the state may bring charges in a case involving a 19-year-old, since anyone under 20 is legally unable consent to commercial sex in Alaska.

District of Columbia: In Washington, D.C., two suspected pimps** were arrested no minors were found. Twenty-three others were arrested on unspecified charges. (A lot of the agencies only specifically noted the arrest of pimps or sex traffickers, adding something like "twenty-three other adults arrested" afterward. I think it's fair to assume that most of the unspecified charges in these stings are for prostitution or solicitation, but likely not all, since police do also tend to bring drug possession and other charges based on Operation Cross Country stings.)

California: Officials in Los Angeles and surrounding areas announced "the rescue of three minor victims and the arrest of three pimps," along with the arrest of "multiple adult prostitutes and individuals soliciting prostitution." In Fairfield, Fresno, and Sacramento, California, four minors were found, seven alleged pimps arrested, and 90 adults arrested "for various offenses including probation violations and prostitution-related charges."

Colorado: In Colorado Springs, eight men were taken into custody for soliciting a "13-year-old girl"/police decoy for sex. In addition, three people were arrested for prostitution, nine for soliciting prostitution, two for pimping or pandering, and one person for operating a massage parlor without a license. Three more adult sex workers agreed to participate in a prostitution "intervention" program in lieu of arrest. Meanwhile, Denver boasts the most minors recovered—20—along with seven alleged pimps arrested. "We're not playing around," Thomas P. Ravenelle, special agent in charge of the FBI Denver Division, said in a statement. "If you're caught hurting and trafficking our children, we'll do everything we can with prosecutors to put you behind bars forever and take away your freedom."

Florida: In Tampa Bay and the surrounding areas, six minors were found and six suspected pimps arrested.

Georgia: In Georgia, the 30-something police departments and government agencies working on Operation Cross Country found seven minors and arrested seven people on "state-related sex trafficking charges."

Illinois: In Chicago, three minors and two suspected pimps were found.

Iowa: In Council Bluffs, Iowa, 10 adults were arrested for prostitution; no minors were found.

Louisiana: In operations encompassing New Orleans, Baton Rouge, St. Charles, Jefferson Parish, and Shreveport, Louisiana, three minors and seven suspected pimps were found.

Michigan: In Detroit, 19 minors were found and 12 sex-trafficking suspects arrested.

Mississippi: In Mississippi, two minors were found and 24 adults arrested on charges including prostitution, possession of a firearm, narcotics possession, and child endangerment (for bringing a 3-year-old along while either offering to engage in or soliciting prostitution.)

Minnesota: In La Crescent, three people were arrested for prostitution and one man for solicitation of sex from a minor (which was actually a police decoy); no minors were found.

Nebraska: In Omaha, two minors were found, three alleged pimps were arrested, and 18 adults were arrested on unspecified charges.

New Jersey: In a two-county wide area including Atlantic City, six minors were found. In the city of Newark, six minors and two suspected pimps were found.

North Carolina: In Asheville, four people were arrested on charges including solicitation of prostitution, transport for the purpose of prostitution, and possession and trafficking of drugs.

North Dakota: In Williston, North Dakota—an oil boomtown often portrayed as a hotbed of sex trafficking—one man was arrested and charged with promoting prostitution. No minors were found.

Ohio: In Ohio, four minors and one suspected pimp were found.

Oregon: In Eugene and Salem, Oregon, no minors were found but three people were charged with promoting prostitution. In Portland and Beaverton, Oregon, two minors were found.

Pennsylvania and West Virginia: In an area encompassing Wheeling, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, Erie, Greensburg, and Green Tree, Pennsylvania, three minors were found, two alleged pimps were found, and 23 other people were arrested on prostitution or solicitation of prostitution charges.

Tennessee: In Knoxville and Chattanooga, no minors were found and two suspected sex traffickers were arrested.

Texas: In San Antonio four minors were found and one person charged with sex-trafficking of a minor. In Dallas, five minors were found and one suspected pimp arrested.

Virginia: In Virginia Beach and surrounding areas (including Norfolk and Chesapeake), three minors (ages 16-17) were found, and five people were charged with "sex trafficking with the intent to receive money," "receiving money from the earnings of a minor prostitute," and racketeering. Two of these individuals were also charged with "aiding prostitution" and three were charged with "maintaining a bawdy place."

Washington: In Vancouver, Washington, one minor was found, two people were charged with promoting prostitution, and one person was charged with promoting commercial sexual abuse of a minor. In the rest of Washington state, three minors were found and officials arrested "11 subjects suspected of commercially exploiting children and/or adults and related crimes." Investigators also interviewed "15 subjects suspected of being involved in facilitating prostitution" and "contacted" 119 adults working in prostitution. Police "recovered cash, drugs, a gun, and several vehicles during the operations."

Wisconsin: Overall, nine minors were found and 11 suspected pimps arrested in Wisconsin. Additionally, 11 people were arrested for prostitution in Milwaukee and 45 adults arrested for unspecified charges in other parts of the state.

Wyoming: No minors were found but four men were arrested on misdemeanor solicitation charges and one man was arrested on felony solicitation charges.

* This should not be taken as a complete picture of Operation Cross Country IV arrest numbers but merely those I was able to uncover in a few hours of research. At the time I compiled this, most of the reporting agencies were providing few details about their stings. I will update this post if/as more data becomes available.

** I think it should also be noted that a "pimp" can, under the law, be anyone who in any way aids someone in prostitution. It does not necessarily mean that violence, coercion, or exploitation are involved. I'm not so naive as to think all "pimps" are darling individuals, but it's also true that a lot of sex workers like working with a pimp or madam for protection, convenience, or various other reasons.