Future Tense

The Live-Tweeted Prostitution Sting Was a Total Bust, and Not in a Good Way

When the Prince George’s County Police Department in suburban Washington, D.C., announced that it would be live-tweeting a prostitution sting, it seemed like a perfect case to see how police might leverage social media in new ways. But it didn’t quite work out.

First, a little background. On the morning of May 1, the department announced “PGPD to Live Tweet Prostitution Sting—We won’t tell you when or where, other than it’s somewhere in the county sometime next week…Suspect photos and information will be tweeted…Follow @PGPDNews and search #PGPDVice as we take you along for the takedowns.”

The social media backlash was swift and nearly unanimous. On Slate, Katy Waldman wrote, “public humiliation, the form of discipline most readily available to the crowd, which has no state-consecrated authority to prosecute crime, looks terrible—petty, spiteful, embarrassing—coming from people who can claim that power.” The moral, ethical, and legal issues of live-tweeting the names and pictures of people arrested but not convicted—and thus presumed innocent—are important ones, as is the question of how law enforcement treats prostitution.

So how did the PG County sting go down? It didn’t exactly. On Tuesday afternoon, without once tweeting about the sting on its @PGPDNews account or elsewhere with the #PGPDVice hashtag, the PGPD declared the operation a success. First, the department said that all the media attention caused it to worry that undercover officers’ identities would be compromised if it live-tweeted photos, so that (relatively central) part of the plan was ditched. Fortunately, no one showed up looking for a prostitute anyway. PGPD attributed this to the planned live-tweeting serving as an effective deterrent, driving the johns out of Prince George’s County for the week.

Did PGPD actually achieve its stated goals of transparency or deterrence? From the transparency side, the answer is a resounding no. Its concern for undercover officers seems legitimate, but why withhold any information about that until after the sting was complete? Transparency requires a lot more communication than announcing a sting will happen and then announcing that it’s complete. PGPD provided no details about its plans, its planning process, or its activities. We didn’t even see a pre-sting tweet of non-undercover officers getting ready for the operation, a simple and effective post that would have provided some insight into the inner workings of the vice squad. If anything, this operation showed the PGPD to be a mysterious and unpredictable black box of law enforcement.

And what about deterring crime? The evidence that the planned live-tweeting scared off johns from PG County for a week is flimsy at best. The PGPD did not provide any statistics that would suggest that making no arrests was even unusual. If they average five to 10 arrests per sting as the blog post claimed, a day of making no arrests could be quite common. This also leaves aside the very legitimate question of whether we want our police to deter crime with the threat of publicly shaming alleged criminals (and their families) over social media.

In the end, it is hard to see any success for PGPD that came from this plan. It received a strong and prolonged negative response from social and traditional media. It failed at showing any transparency, as was its stated goal, and it offered basically no evidence that they deterred crime. Other police departments can and have used social media successfully in the past, and their example is one other departments should learn and model. Let’s hope this attempt from PGPD serves as a case study on how not to use social media.