Law enforcement and social media make an interesting combination, to say the least, and results aren’t always in line with expectations, as the New York City Police Department discovered last week. Now police in Prince George’s County, Maryland, are coming under fire for a plan to live-tweet a prostitution sting. In answer to the logical questions: yes, they’re perfectly serious, and no, it probably wasn’t thought through sufficiently.
The sting, scheduled for some time next week, will focus on shaming “Johns” rather than prostitutes, according to the PGPD, including tweeting their names, charges, and photos. A blog post on the PGPD Web site informed the public: “We won’t tell you when or where, other than it’s somewhere in the county sometime next week. The PGPD’s Vice Unit will conduct a prostitution sting and we'll tweet it out as it happens. From the ads to the arrests, we'll show you how the PGPD is battling the oldest profession.”
In presenting the plan the police noted that all this personal identifying information is already a matter of public record when an arrest is made; there is also a long, glorious history of publicly humiliating the men who solicit prostitutes as part of vice investigations (the PGPD plan to go after “Johns” who solicit prostitutes online as well as on the streets, targeting traffic from Web sites like Backpage.com).
Finally the plan has admirable motives, to hear the PGPD tell it: police spokesperson Julie Parker was quoted as saying, “So much of what a law enforcement agency does is behind the scenes and the community is really intrigued by that work. We're simply putting it out in a very public forum.”
Still, the plan is controversial for obvious reasons, and has inspired a lot of criticism (as well as some support) on social media. Even though the police say they will focus on the “Johns,” activists who work with prostitutes or “sex workers” note that both the prostitutes and their clients will be less likely to report cases of abuse and mistreatment that they witness, for example by pimps or other clients, if they are afraid it will result in their names and pictures being tweeted to the world.
Turning to the “Johns,” while you can argue they are getting their just desserts, the fact is the PGPD may well be ruining someone’s life for what could be a single moment of weakness or bad judgment. Just because it’s legal to publish someone’s name and picture (and yes, police blotters have been doing it for years) doesn’t mean it’s necessary or appropriate – especially when it will follow them forever online, hurting their chances of future employment, getting a bank loan, finding a spouse, and so on.