In the coming week, Prince George’s police say, vice officers will take to the streets to arrest people suspected of soliciting prostitutes. But in an unusual twist, they’re planning to give the public an inside look at the sting operation — detailing it live on Twitter.
Police said on their blog that it’s a way to show how the department is “battling the oldest profession.” Tweeting “suspect photos and information,” they said, will serve as a warning and a deterrent.
But the plan has provoked a backlash. Critics suggest that the tactic is no more helpful to protecting the public than watching an episode of “Cops.” They also worry that the posted photos could go viral, possibly destroying the reputation of those wrongly accused as well as punishing suspects before they are convicted of a crime.
The tension comes as police and other law enforcement agencies increasingly rely on social media to share information including arrests and road closures as well as to promote their image. Prince George’s police have been among the most active in the area. On its Facebook page, the department recently posted a photo of a cute baby in uniform. It frequently seeks the public’s help in identifying or finding robbers, rapists and killers through posts on the department’s blog. And with more than 11,000 followers, its @PGPDNews Twitter account pushes out thousands of messages a year.
Despite the criticism, the department isn’t backing down, said chief spokeswoman Julie Parker.
“It’s is not meant to be salacious,” said Parker, who added that the effort is about transparency. “The community has a right to know, and we want to share it with them.”
The department would not reveal when or where its prostitution sting will occur, but encouraged the public to follow @PGPDNews and search #PGPDVice on Twitter as “we take you along for the takedowns.” Department officials said they would target those soliciting prostitutes, not the alleged prostitutes themselves.
The announcement prompted swift, negative reactions on social media.
Katy Otto, or @exfkaty on Twitter, wrote in response: “#PGPCVice I grew up in PG County and I am disgusted that you would live tweet sting operation arresting sex workers @PGPDNews - for shame.”
“It really strikes me as a TV reality-show tactic,” Otto said later in an interview. “It seems like new territory.”
Lisa Holt is one of the few who came to the department’s defense on social media.
“As a woman who lives in PGC, I appreciate this kind of work to eradicate crime in our county,” she tweeted from her account @BalloonLisa on Friday morning. “Thanks for locking up the johns. #PGPDVice.”
The social media operation shows how the department is enforcing laws and working for the public, said Holt, who is on the board of Prince George’s County Crime Solvers, a nonprofit organization that offers rewards for information about crimes.
“I have faith in the department’s ability to carry out this operation in the most respectful way,” she said.
Police departments are “really using social media to try to build their reputations and create and improve relationships with the community,” said Lauri Stevens, a social media strategist who specializes in law enforcement.
“We’ve seen a lot of cases where if you put someone’s mug shot out there, not only will a citizens lead them to that person, sometimes the person will turn themselves in because they want their picture down,” Stevens said.
In a breaking-news event, social media allows police to quickly disseminate information to a large number of people. Many were glued to the Boston police department’s Twitter account in the aftermath of last year’s marathon bombing, rejoicing when @bostonpolice jubilantly announced the end of the manhunt. Locally, the news media and D.C. area residents closely followed @HCPDNews as Howard County police chronicled its investigation of a deadly shooting at the Mall in Columbia.
But as more law enforcement agencies experiment with social media, examples of how it can be a hinderance have also emerged. While police have long put out well-vetted news releases and photos, some critics worry that the fast pace of Twitter could lead to ill-considered posts or the distribution of details that may prove to be false. In addition, other users can also weigh in on — even attempt to take over — the conversation.
Because the social media universe is mostly uncensored and difficult to control, it is easy for campaigns to go awry, said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Last month, the New York police department asked the public to submit photos of themselves with officers using the tag #myNYPD. Instead, some people posted images of officers using force during arrests and allegations of brutality based on some of the photos.
“That was a good illustration that sometimes the best intentions can backfire on you,” O’Donnell said. The New York police “got an international black eye, or at least an international bad-press day.”
Locally, the Washington-based nonprofit group HIPS plans to take over the #PGPDVice hashtag this week, said Cyndee Clay, executive director of the group, which provides social services for sex workers and drug users. She said HIPS will simultaneously live-tweet real stories from clients coming to the organization’s offices for help finding jobs and health care as they try to get themselves off of the streets.
“Shaming tactics don’t work and are harmful,” Clay said. “We’re trying to mobilize communities to really create a dialogue on what is the right approach to dealing with prostitution in our community.”
Prince George’s police said any photos they send via Twitter would not include alleged prostitutes and noted that some sex workers are victims of human trafficking. “Our Vice Unit regularly helps trafficked women connect with groups and advocates who help them escape the dangerous sex trade,” the department said in a statement.
Stevens, the social media strategist, said Prince George’s County is one of the more “progressive” police departments in the country when it comes to experimenting with social media and called the live-tweet operation “extremely innovative.” She predicts other agencies will copy the approach if it goes well.
While the operation may deter crime in the short term by “creating a larger image of enforcement” through the reach of social media, O’Donnell said there are ethical questions.
“If you destroy someone’s reputation on social media, where is their recourse once that has been done?” O’Donnell said.
This is not the first time the department has live-tweeted events. But this is likely to be the most followed. And that’s fine by the police department and Parker, who wants to make the message clear: “We are watching, and we are waiting to catch you if you commit a crime.”