Thirty-eight agreed to “dispositional continuance” – meaning if they fulfill certain requirements, like going through a program for men who’ve been caught buying sex, the offense would be stricken from their record
It’s been championed by City Attorney Pete Holmes, who first began considering the new approach following a trip to Boston for a conference in 2012, and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who has even accepted money from an organization that explicitly promotes this model.
As the Barbie’s Dollhouse cases have begun to move through the city’s court system, defense attorneys are frustrated that the city is repeating what they view as a sloppy operation. Almost every case that was not a guilty plea in the first Euro Spa operation was dismissed by either the judge or jury and the one guilty verdict that resulted from the sting was overturned on appeal. The critics doubt this second round will be different.
At the same time, some sex workers argue the operations are misguided, criminalizing what they consider a safer form of prostitution while letting actual human traffickers off the hook.
As part of a shift toward the “Nordic Model” approach to prostitution, the Seattle Police Department has largely stopped targeting sex workers for arrest. Officers with the department’s vice unit often run undercover operations on the street – up and down Aurora avenue, for example – both as men seeking sex and women selling it. But when the police pick up sex workers, instead of taking them to jail, the undercover officer drives to an RV or some other outpost where they are offered counseling and advice from members of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, a support organization made up of former sex workers.
“We never anticipated this volume,” Sgt. Tom Umporowicz told the Seattle Times after the Euro Spa operation, which was run out of a small University District storefront.
That operation resulted in 204 arrests and received widespread media attention. One year later, before many of the Euro Spa cases had been resolved in court, the Barbie’s Dollhouse operation was launched.
The men who answered the ad on Backpage were directed to a nondescript building near the Aurora Avenue Home Depot, in North Seattle. The officer would ask the man if he wanted to hear about their specials – “handjob,” “blowjob” or ”full sex.”
The two parties would agree, the man would hand over the money and the officer would give a signal to the arrest team hiding in an adjacent room. In all, 84 cases were charged by the City Attorney’s Office, most of which involved would-be buyers seeking a half-hour massage with a handjob – a cost of $60.
The design and execution of the operations is the work of the Seattle Police Department. But because the cases are now in court, the Department deferred comment to the City Attorney’s Office.
“It’s in line with the City Attorney’s overall strategy of going after sex buyers and hitting the demand side of that equation versus the supply side,” said Chief of the Criminal Division Kelly Harris. “As you can see, they’re pretty effective.”
While the vice unit may pick up a handful of sex buyers – or “johns” – by camping out along Aurora Avenue, the number of those arrests have been nothing compared to the draw of the faux massage parlors
But that first sting did not end up being as effective as the City Attorney’s Office wanted. Harris said the mistakes will not be repeated with the Barbie’s Dollhouse operation, but public defenders nevertheless question the value of repeating the operation. “It’s a waste of the court’s time and it’s a waste of taxpayers’ resources,” said public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy.
Euro Spa elicited 94 guilty pleas – just under half of those charged – generally costing the men between $1,000 and $3,000 in fines.