Pr. George’s prostitution sting happened today without arrests or live tweets

Prince George’s County police conducted a prostitution sting Tuesday but didn’t make any arrests or send live tweets during the operation as had been planned, authorities said.

The department said it decided not to provide real-time updates about the sting to protect the identities of undercover officers. Both the police department and those who spoke out against its planned use of Twitter — a tactic that received international attention — declared success.

Prince George’s police announced last week that they would live-tweet the sting as a deterrent. But critics quickly weighed in on social media, saying documenting the sting on Twitter would harm people who had not been convicted of crimes and drive sex workers further underground.

The three-hour operation targeted prospective clients and not the prostitutes, police said. They said the advanced warning on social media was a crime-prevention tool, scaring away those who would have solicited the services of prostitutes.

“It appears that that notice did the trick,” police spokeswoman Julie Parker said.

County police said it wasn’t the social media backlash that made them rethink the plan to send Twitter updates during the sting but the need to protect the identity and safety of officers on the vice unit.

Previous live-tweeting events had not involved under­cover officers, Parker said.

But those who pushed back against the police department also claimed a victory, with some saying the criticism kept the county from live-tweeting the operation.

“While we may not agree with the reason they say they didn’t tweet it, we’re glad they didn’t,” said Cyndee Clay, executive director of HIPS, a local nonprofit that provides social services to sex workers.

To disrupt the police department’s plan to document the sting via Twitter, HIPS intended to use the same hashtag — #PGPDVice — to live-tweet services that HIPS was providing to sex workers. Now HIPS plans to live-tweet a day of services sometime next week, Clay said Wednesday.

Sgt. Dave Coleman, head of the county’s vice intelligence unit, said the sting took place in the middle of the day. “Lunchtime is one of the prime times to arrest Johns,” he said.

Police planted Internet ads Monday night to lure prospective clients into looking for prostitutes. Calls started coming in about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, Coleman said.

The vice team had set up meetings with at least five potential clients, but all of them were no-shows, Coleman said. Traffic on backpage.com, a popular Web site for those seeking prostitutes, also appeared to be down, he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Coleman, who added that similar operations usually result in five to 10 arrests. “Our overall goal is not to arrest people but to suppress crime.”

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Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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