How a 'John sting' targets the demand side of human sex trafficking

The Anaheim PD’s John sting underscores the pervasive nature of the demand side of prostitution – one prong of the pernicious problem of human sex trafficking


This article is reprinted with permission from Behind the Badge

By Greg Hardesty and Rebecca D'Auria

The man in the Audi wanted oral sex.

An undercover Anaheim PD officer is solicited by a driver during a 'John sting.' (Steven Georges/Behind the Badge)
An undercover Anaheim PD officer is solicited by a driver during a 'John sting.' (Steven Georges/Behind the Badge)

Cruising down Beach Boulevard last month, in broad daylight just five days before Christmas, he spotted a woman who appeared to be a street prostitute.

In fact, she was an undercover officer with the Anaheim PD.

Clueless about her real identity, the man in the Audi made her an offer in exchange for the sex act: Twenty dollars and a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Deal, the undercover officer told him.

Minutes later, when the two entered a room, the man was arrested.

A total of 17 APD officers, including three female officers posing as prostitutes, as well as members of the APD’s VICE detail, the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, and Community Policing members, participated in the Dec. 20, 2019 operation, which because it targeted the demand side of prostitution was called a “John sting.”

As the nation marks Human Trafficking Awareness Month throughout January, the APD’s John sting underscored the pervasive nature of the demand side of prostitution – one prong of the pernicious problem of human sex trafficking.

Men in cars solicited the undercover officers for sex within minutes of them taking turns walking from the motel, past a bus stop and to a corner strip mall.

One arrestee admitted to officers that he had dropped his wife off at a nearby salon to get her nails done and “this is how he killed time,” Sgt. Chris Cooper said.

By the end of the operation, the APD had arrested 11 men (the crime they are accused of is a misdemeanor).

The APD is a lead agency involved in the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, which was formed in 2004.

Since then, the OCHTTF has become a model nationally and internationally in the fight against human trafficking. The task force takes a victim-centered and trauma-informed approach – a stark contrast to how those working in the sex trade were perceived in the past: as criminals.

APD Sgt. Juan Revelas, who has run the law enforcement component of OCHTTF since 2014, participated in the John sting, keeping his eyes on the female undercover officers as they strolled down the street and effortlessly attracted potential clients.

Just before 3 p.m., when the Dec. 20 operation got underway, the first fake prostitute attracted a client in less than three minutes.

“She has a date,” Reveles communicated over the radio to his APD sting partners who were hiding in plain sight in unmarked cars.

Cooper, who manages four sworn investigators and one non-sworn investigator on the APD’s VICE detail, ran the John sting.

“This is a great example of several details within the department collaborating together to address an important issue,” said Cooper, who said such stings are held whenever the need arises.

Street prostitution is one piece of the sex trafficking pie, Cooper explained. Some Johns prefer to hook up with prostitutes over the Internet and meet in high-end hotels. Others prefer to visit illicit massage parlors. Others are out-of-town convention-goers looking for sex.

Although Johns hitting up street prostitutes make up only a small percentage of the demand side, the problem impacts residents and businesses, Cooper said. No one wants to see sex negotiations taking place on the street in front of their home or business, he said.

Prior to the John sting, Cooper’s VICE detail had been keeping busy shutting down illegal medical marijuana dispensaries throughout Anaheim.

Last summer, on a weekday afternoon, the team raided a nondescript building with a red roof on East Lincoln Avenue.

The smell of marijuana filled the air as the VICE officers raided the business, which had a counter filled with varieties of herb, ranging from Island Glue and Harambe Hash to Kool-Aid Cookies.

The building thumped with loud music and its shop was finished with a dab room, bath salts, and syringes.

APD’s VICE detail has seen it all.

In addition to narcotics and prostitution, the undercover unit also investigates crimes related to gambling and alcohol.

“With a four-man unit, we have to really depend on each other and work together,” said an undercover VICE investigator who asked to remain anonymous.

The unit executes important stakeouts and surveillance projects aimed at building a case. It requires monitoring criminal organizations and their enterprises and going undercover.

“We are able to see people act naturally, and it’s fascinating to see how people act when they think no one is watching,” said an undercover VICE sergeant.

VICE detail officers handle dangerous criminals and often work in high-risk situations.

As one VICE investigator described it: “If you want to arrest the devil, you have to go to hell for witnesses.”

On Dec. 20, 2019, the “devil” totaled 11 men all looking to pay for sex.

If nobody’s buying, there’s no reason for the girls to come out,” Cooper said. “If we can curb it to where the buyers don’t want to come out here, that’s what we’re addressing today

The undercover officers posing as prostitutes wore wires to record the transactions.

The safety of those officers and the other officers participating in the John sting is paramount, said Cooper, who had run the APD’s VICE unit for seven months.

Surprisingly, a lot of street prostitution happens in the morning, between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., Cooper said.

“We were out here on a Friday night recently and it was dead,” he said.

Johns also look for sex during their lunch breaks or while driving home from work, he said.

“In my world, you never want to see my guys,” Cooper said. “That means everything is going well. This is a very dangerous operation. Some sex purchasers can be violent. Also, some are pimps looking to hire girls. My No. 1 goal is to do this safely. We never sacrifice the safety of the team.

“At the end of the day,” Cooper added, “what I want is for anyone who drives down Beach Boulevard to be thinking in the back of their mind, ‘I might be picking up a prostitute, but I also might be picking up a cop.’

“And if at the end of the day that’s what we accomplish, then we’re doing our job.”

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