Should police officers be allowed to tempt, cajole, or seduce people into breaking the law? That is the question that almost everyone was discussing in Seattle this summer after the Seattle Police Department arrested 204 men during a 10-day sting operation in the city’s University district. Detectives set up the operation in a massage parlor they had closed down in the spring. Along with the arrests, police seized more than $22,000 in cash that suspects had intended to spend for the “services” of massage parlor employees. It was the largest, most successful sting in Seattle police history.

“We never anticipated this volume,” police spokesperson Sgt. Tom Umporowicz said regarding the undercover sting operation. With a first offender’s fine set at $2,733, the total amount obtained through the operation will surpass a half-million dollars. Formerly known as the Bamboo Spa, the location was shut down by Seattle police in May, and the owner of the business, 38-year-old Ling Gao, was charged with two counts of promoting prostitution in the second degree. Police seized over $24,000 in cash from Gao’s home and numerous receipts for Western Union money transfers to China.


The building’s landlord, according to Sgt. Umporowicz, was “horrified” when the police told her that the property was allegedly being used for criminal activity, and she quickly agreed to allow the vice unit to operate there, Sgt. Umporowicz said. He added that an anonymous vice complaint earlier in the year prompted the initial investigation. “People complain about these massage parlors all the time,” Sgt. Umporowicz told the Seattle Times. “It’s not like we’ve focused on something where no one else sees a problem.”


The 204 men who were busted included attorneys, architects, doctors, and construction workers. A registered sex offender and a man carrying a large stash of drugs were also among those arrested. “Most of these guys going to massage parlors think they’re fairly safe. And the sure thing is always part of the dynamic,” Sgt. Umporowicz said. Detectives retrieved wedding rings, firearms, and cellphones from the suspects’ cars, and they even watched one man’s dog until he was able to make bail. Several of the suspects were already “graduates” of the city’s “john school,” an educational diversion program offered to men after their first soliciting conviction.


In the past, solicitation suspects in Seattle were usually arrested, released, and received a summons in the mail. Now, however, the Seattle Police Department is requiring mandatory jail bookings for anyone being charged with “sexual exploitation,” the new phrase being used by the City Attorney’s Office for what used to be known as soliciting a prostitute, a misdemeanor. The idea is that orange jail garb, fingerprinting, and a mug shot will act as a deterrent in the future, Umporowicz said.


Seattle criminal defense attorney Kevin Trombold believes that the phrase “sexual exploitation” is a bit disingenuous. “They label it ‘sexual exploitation’ but it’s just government preying on the natural needs of people, which could instead be taxed, regulated, and controlled. There were no children involved and there was no sex.” Sex crimes attorney Trombold is not the only figure who is criticizing law enforcement’s approach to prostitution in Seattle.

On KIRO Radio, Don O’Neill called the sting operation “a “colossal waste of time.” O’Neill noted that the Seattle Police Department is understaffed by more than 340 officers, and officers are working overtime to deal with protests related to police shootings, a heroin epidemic, and a growing homeless problem. “This is ridiculous; this cost a lot of money and is tomfoolery,” O’Neill said. “You pick up the phone and call the police and they’re not coming. Well, because we’re using our man- and women-power to do stuff like this.”


O’Neill would like to see the Seattle police go after the people who pressure and abuse underage girls to become involved in sex work. But instead, he says, the police department is taking the easier path of preying on lonely but otherwise law-abiding Seattle men. “A lot of these men probably won’t do any time for this, but they will sure be embarrassed, there will be divorces over this, families will be embarrassed and they may end up losing their jobs,” O’Neill said.


According to a U.S. Department of Justice report in 2015, Seattle’s sex economy more than doubled in the years from 2005 through 2012, if the estimated amount of cash changing hands is the measurement. Nearly every other large U.S. city saw its sex economy stagnate during those years, according to the report. The study also identified the prime drivers in Seattle’s commercial sex boom to be massage parlors, spas, and the residential brothels operated predominantly by Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants.

Erotic massage parlors have steadily expanded in the Seattle area in recent years. The Department of Justice report says their numbers have effectively doubled since about 2005. After a massage or spa treatment, customers can offer a “tip” for sex acts. Seattle and Bellevue contain some of the fastest growth in this sector nationwide, according to the Justice Department’s report.


A 2008 report released by Seattle’s Human Services Department estimated as many as 500 underage girls were exploited in the city’s sex trade every night, and that’s a figure that is probably much higher today in 2016. In 2008, police officers could find could the underage girls in high-traffic corridors such as Seattle’s North Aurora Avenue, but today they are harder to find, hidden among what Seattle Police Captain Eric Sano calls a “flood” of online posts. “There’s a new site that pops up every day,” to prostitute underage girls in Seattle, according to Sgt. Jaycin Diaz of the SPD’s High Risk Victims Unit.

As Seattle sex crimes attorney Kevin Trombold noted, “no children were involved” in the massage parlor sting operation. To a neutral and perhaps slightly cynical observer, it would seem that the Seattle Police Department is more interested in generating revenue – by ruining the lives of non-violent and otherwise law-abiding individuals – than in pursuing the criminals who exploit underage girls and frequently commit violent crimes against them. At the very least, a serious reappraisal the Seattle Police Department’s priorities needs to take place.