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The Prince George's County Police Department has a new tool in the fight against prostitution: Twitter.
The department announced today that it will live-tweet a prostitution sting next week, using the popular micro-blogging service to publicize arrests of prostitutes and their clients.
"We won't tell you when or where, other than it's somewhere in the county sometime next week," wrote the department in a blog posting. "The PGPD's Vice Unit will conduct a prostitution sting and we'll tweet it out as it happens."
"Suspect photos and information will be tweeted. We're using this progressive, and what we believe unprecedented, social media tactic to warn any potential participants that this type of criminal behavior is not welcome in Prince George's County," it added.
This won't be the first police investigation that the media-savvy department — whose chief spokesperson, Julie Parker, is a former TV reporter — has taken to social media. In late 2012, for example, the department live-tweeted arrests outside a Washington Redskins game, and often it live-tweets police exercises.
"This is just another live-tweeting event that we've come up with that we thought would send a message to the people committing these crimes in our county that we don't want it here," says Parker.
But this may be going one step too far, according to Cyndee Clay, executive director of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS), an organization that provides health services for sex workers. In her own tweets, Clay criticized the department's tactics.
"Arrest and public shaming only increase people's vulnerability and actually perpetuate the incarceration-to-the-streets revolving door," she wrote.
Parker doesn't see it as such, and says that the department will be targeting the men who pay for sex. "The focus is on the johns, so we'll be targeting the johns with this event. Our duty as a law enforcement agency is to arrest criminals, to keep our citizens safe," she says.
Still, Clay has pledged to "live-tweet a day at our drop-in and on our van" on the same day as the police department's sting.
In 2012, Prince George's County implemented a bill allowing police to set up prostitution-free zones, temporary areas where the presumption of guilt for prostitution-related offenses is lower. D.C. has a similar law, though police have stopped using it over concerns that the zones are unconstitutional. A bill has been introduced in the D.C. Council to do away with the zones.
Prostitution and solicitation in Maryland are punishable by a $500 fine and one year in prison.
"This is an part of the continued effort to handle the prostitution issue in the county; especially along Route 1 corridor," says Barry Stanton, the county's deputy chief administrative officer for public safety. "The actions of PGPD in this area magnifies the effort our police department is putting forward to fight this problem in the county."
Update, May 2: On Thursday evening the police department posted a response to criticism of the event on its blog:
We'd like to share with our community more details on our plans to target johns in an upcoming prostitution sting. The announcement of the operation sparked intense discussion on social media, due in part, to the spread of misinformation. Our Vice Unit will target those who choose to solicit a prostitute, not prostitutes themselves. The intent all along has been to put on notice and/or arrest the very people who exploit women and even young girls in our community. Some young girls and women involved in prostitution 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. We're hoping the advance notice we've provided acts as a deterrent to would-be johns who choose to engage in this illegal behavior. This is another example of our department's commitment to transparency. We'll give our community real-time access to the PGPD's Vice Unit which is dedicated to shutting down this type of illicit business and seeking help for its victims.