A countywide program launched in the fall to reduce local demand for prostitution is seeing some early success, with police and city officials all working to increase the risk of prosecution for sex buyers while reducing the number of women arrested on prostitution charges.

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Police agencies across King County collectively arrested more men last year for patronizing a prostitute than they arrested women on prostitution charges, offering the first statistical indications of a countywide effort to shift responsibility for the sex trade onto the men who fund it.

“For the last five years, we’ve seen a pretty significant disproportionality,” with far more women involved in prostitution arrested than men who pay them for sex, said King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Val Richey.

Countywide, “2014 was the first year patronizing charges outpaced prostitution charges — and they did it in a big way,” Richey said of local police agencies.

 

Related video: Tougher tactics stinging sex buyers

SPD’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit and the Des Moines Police Department run a hotel sting operation to arrest prospective sex buyers answering online ads. Read more. (Bettina Hansen and Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)    

The dramatic shift is being attributed to the county’s “Buyer Beware” initiative, aimed at reducing the local demand for prostitution by targeting those who pay for sex.

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In the seven months since the Buyer Beware launch, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said he’s seen an important “course correction,” with police now arresting more men on patronizing charges while arresting fewer women on prostitution charges.

But the effort is not just about busting sex buyers. A new, 10-week intervention program is also seeing early success in helping men examine their attitudes about sexuality and their motivations for paying prostituted women and girls for sex, Satterberg and Richey said.

Historically, women involved in prostitution have been arrested at a rate 10 times higher than the men who paid them for sex, according to Richey. Police, city attorneys and judges across the county are all working to shift that dynamic to hold men accountable for the harms caused to the mostly girls and women caught up in the sex trade, Satterberg said.

Seattle police have been on the forefront of the trend since 2012, when three women were arrested for prostitution compared to 89 men for patronizing a prostitute.

Last year, police in Seattle, Kent, Renton, Des Moines, Federal Way and Auburn collectively arrested three men to every woman in prostitution cases.

“Other cities didn’t have quite the same ratio” but the evolution in police practices has still seen that “prostitution charges have gone down and patronizing charges have gone up — just not to the same degree,” said Richey, who handles most of his office’s felony prostitution cases.

But, said Satterberg, “what’s not reflected in the statistics is the attitudes of officers on the streets. Women are saying, ‘Officers are coming up to us and asking if they can help us’ ” by referring the women to social-service providers.

While patronizing an adult prostitute is a misdemeanor charge, men who buy sex — or attempt to — from a minor are charged with a felony and if convicted, must register for 10 years as sex offenders.

In 2014, 52 men were charged with attempted commercial sex abuse of a minor (CSAM), according to Richey.

Up until this year, virtually all of the CSAM cases in the county originated with the Seattle Police Department or the King County Sheriff’s Office, Richey said. But detectives from both agencies have been teaching officers in other police departments how to run Internet stings — and it’s starting to pay off:

“Kent and Renton have produced a lot of these cases. … We’re seeing a greater diversity,” Richey said. “And we’re really seeing a level of competence and expertise developing (among detectives) to go after these buyers.”

In the first quarter of 2015, Richey said 23 men were charged with attempted CSAM after responding to online ads posted by police offering sex with juveniles. Ads with words like “fresh” and “young” always seem to get the greatest response — and it’s not unusual for 200 or 300 men to respond in the first hour or two after an ad gets posted, he said.

Added Satterberg: “They’re strong cases, and the words of the defendant are the best evidence, when they’re texting who they think is a 15-year-old girl.”

Police are still going after pimps who profit from prostitution, but those cases require longer investigations and the number of cases tends to ebb and flow, said Richey. Last year, his office filed six or seven felony pimping cases, a number that’s already been reached so far this year, he said.

Sex buyers — who often talk among themselves in online forums — are very much aware of the concerted effort happening across King County, where 98 percent of the population lives in 25 cities with 10,000 people or more, Satterberg said.

“The reason it’s so important to have all communities in King County involved in this is to make sure there are no safe havens,” he said.

City attorneys and municipal court judges are increasingly buying into the program and are no longer allowing men to dodge prosecution through diversions to john school, Satterberg and Richey said.

Kent Municipal Court Judge Karli Jorgensen calls herself “an early and avid adopter” of the new approach — and has required men convicted of patronizing a prostitute to attend the 10-week intervention program as a condition of their sentences.

“It’s just horrific,” she said of the harm caused to women and girls involved in prostitution. “It’s clearly a huge problem that needs to be addressed and it’s often treated as a victimless crime. I think the new objective changes that dynamic.”

Since January, 23 men have been court-ordered to attend the intervention program by judges in Kent, SeaTac, Federal Way and Des Moines, said Peter Qualliotine, a co-founder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) who teaches the weekly class in Seattle’s Central District.

Another eight men signed up for the $900 program on their own, and one man — an early participant — asked to take the course again, Qualliotine said. Additionally, several “alumni” of the program want to stay connected somehow, and could become involved in mentoring other men who need help to curb behaviors that lead to their often-compulsive buying of sex.

“I’m really encouraged and I’m expecting that the numbers are going to pick up” as more criminal cases make their way through the court system, he said.

For years, Qualliotine has taught a six-hour “john school” for the city of Seattle and continues to do so. He’s hopeful Seattle will start sending men to the 10-week program after city officials are able to analyze results from its first year.

“If the outcomes are successful, we definitely want to be on board,” said Lan Pham, the manager of the Mayor’s Office on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.