A city ordinance approved in the spring with the aim of combating human trafficking was behind a Kenosha Police Department sting operation that led to 22 men receiving tickets carrying hefty fines for soliciting sex-for-hire.
Kenosha police working undercover placed advertisements online on a website commonly used for advertising sex workers. The 22 men, all adults, responded to the advertisements and were met by police officers when they arrived for their scheduled meeting. Each was given a citation that carries a $1,321 fine.
Had any of the men had a previous citation for soliciting prostitution, they would have been referred for criminal charges in state court, Sgt. Leo Viola said.
The new city ordinance was approved in March, sponsored by Ald. Rocco LaMacchia. But the change in the city ordinance was suggested by Kenosha Police Detective Eric Traxler.
“Our goal here is to obviously combat human trafficking,” the detective said.
Traxler works in the department’s sensitive crime unit and is involved with a task force to combat human trafficking.
Since a 1970s-era court decision, Traxler said, law enforcement agencies have been required to target people who solicit sex workers, not just target people — often trafficking victims — with prostitution charges. He said former city ordinances addressing the issue were outdated and focused on punishing people who could be trafficking victims rather than on people paying for sex.
“That’s why I wanted this,” Traxler said of pursuing the new ordinance. “It’s not only statutorily required, it is obviously, in my opinion, the right thing to do.”
Traxler said the old ordinances also focused on outdated practices, focusing on “DC houses” or “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” when most people who solicit sex now do so online.
Traxler said many other communities, including Pleasant Prairie, have updated ordinances, noting “I wasn’t reinventing the wheel.” He said he contacted the city attorney, who was supportive, and LaMacchia signed on to sponsor the change.
“We need to get the sex traffickers off the streets, its a huge, huge issue right now,” LaMacchia said, saying he worries “these young kids are so vulnerable right now with what is going on in the world” and that the ordinance was a way to combat that.
LaMacchia said his fellow council members were “100 percent supportive.”
Traxler said the recent operation was the second Kenosha Police have conducted since the ordinance was approved. He said the recent sting ran on June 29 and 30. And while 22 people receiving citations in two days seems like a lot, Traxler said it could have been many more. “I will say that while we were able to get 22, to be honest there were hundreds of people who contacted us (through the advertisement) trying to schedule times and dates,” he said.
Interim Police Chief Eric Larsen said the updated city ordinance allows police to issue a citation in the same way that citations can be issued for issues like battery or disorderly conduct, when referral for criminal charges was the only option available in the past. “It gives us more latitude,” Larsen said. “And it gives people a chance to change their behavior.”
Police plan to continue with future undercover operations, hoping ultimately to combat trafficking by discouraging would-be traffickers.