The operation came as part of an annual, nationwide operation called the “National Johns Suppression Initiative,” in which law enforcement agencies across the country made more than 1,000 arrests.
“I’m very proud of our work, but concerned by the fact that demand hasn’t declined,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said. He announced the results of the operation Friday morning, along with leaders from the Houston Police Department, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, and several non-profits.
The operation ran from June 28 through July 31 and included 37 law enforcement agencies in 17 states, according to the sheriff’s office. HPD arrested 88 sex-purchasers and nine traffickers, while sheriff’s deputies arrested 161 sex buyers.
The move comes as many local law enforcement agencies have retooled their operations to try to tackle demand for prostitution, rather than arresting women who have often been previously victimized or forced into prostitution.
According to the DA’s office, assistant district attorneys prosecuted cases against approximately 1,400 sellers of sex in 2016, along with approximately 700 buyers. To date so far this year, the department has prosecuted 716 cases against buyers of sex, and 601 against sellers of sex.
“The motivation is to attempt to go higher in the chain [rather than target the prostitutes] – to get the traffickers themselves,” said Nathan Beedle, the DA’s Chief over the misdemeanor division.
The annual operation is coordinated by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois, and it is intended draw attention to the exploitive nature of the sex trafficking industry and reduce the demand for purchased sex.
“Our aim is for Harris County and Houston to shed the dubious distinction as America’s sex trafficking capital,” Gonzalez said. “By focusing our efforts on sex buyers who are seeking to take advantage of sex trafficking victims, we are putting these predators on notice that our community won’t tolerate their behavior.”
Solicitation of prostitution is a Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office Vice Unit conducted the sting operation with the cooperation of eight different hotel operators.