The CSE Institute is a staunch proponent of the Equality Model. We take an abolitionist approach to addressing commercial sexual exploitation and therefore believe the Equality Model is the best way to fight trafficking throughout Pennsylvania and beyond. The Equality Model, has four key tenants: (1) decriminalize selling sex; (2) criminalize those who purchase sex and facilitate commercial sex transactions; (3) a comprehensive public education campaign about the dangers inherent to prostitution and; (4) a well-funded system to assist those attempting to exit the life. However, challenging traditional beliefs about commercial sexual exploitation by changing the focus of policing to target those who buy sex rather than those who sell it can be an uphill battle. Police departments and law enforcement across the country often claim that it is impossible to make this transition; they argue reverse stings are resource intensive both in terms of time and money. Such assertions often mask a reluctance to switch from long-standing practices. But one rural Pennsylvania police department has recently shifted tactics.
Brookville Borough Police Department took a huge step in 2019 to target sex buyers throughout their community. Following a human trafficking training given to the department by Diane Brant, a former federal examiner, Chief Vince Markel recognized the changes he could make to fight trafficking in Brookville. He appointed Officer Turnbull as the officer to direct the department’s new efforts based on his skill with computers. He did so admirably.
Despite limited anti-trafficking training, Officer Turnbull posed as a trafficker and posted online advertisements selling underage girls for sex. There were 20,000 views of their posts within the first 24 hours and 60,000 by the end of the first week. For a town with a population of around 4,000 this level of response was shocking to the police department. Markle commented that “I think the majority of the people in our area don’t want to believe it. I think they’re trying to turn a blind eye to it, and society is good at doing that with a lot of things. I think this is one of those topics, one of those things we have to take seriously and we all have to join in to combat it.”
Chief Markle and his team made several arrests in 2019, apprehending buyer after buyer who responded to their ads to buy sex from children. Most of the men were initially charged with Trafficking in Minors, as buying or attempting to buy sex from children is per se trafficking. Many of the buyers claimed this was the first time they had attempted to buy sex. Despite their claims, Markle noted the sex buyers used the abbreviations and verbiage commonly used on sites like Skip the Games, where commercial sex can be solicited online. According to an Explore Venango article, Chief Markle noted that one of the men who responded to the online ads posted by Brookville Borough police wanted to buy the featured underaged girl. Not just buy sex but purchase the girl to keep for his own nefarious and obscene purposes.
The efforts made by Chief Markle and his team are laudable. The CSE Institute commends their demand-driven approach and encourages their continued dedication to fighting trafficking in their community. Wherever there is a demand for commercial sex, sex trafficking is already there or not far behind. Focusing law enforcement efforts on the reason sex trafficking exists – because people buy sex- is an effective means to combat commercial sexual exploitation. Demand-driven investigations also help to shift perceptions about who is truly the culpable party in a commercial sex transaction. We hope Chief Markle’s efforts will serve as an example of how to address commercial sexual exploitation to law enforcement across the Commonwealth.