The #myNYPD fiasco may have just been bumped to second place in a Twitter race to show which police department is most out of touch with reality. Last Thursday, the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland announced a plan to live-tweet a prostitution sting this week, a decision that has been met with considerable pushback. Opponents are hijacking the Twitter hashtag #PGPDVice and tweeting their thoughts to @PGPDNews. HIPS, a harm reduction nonprofit serving sex workers, will live-tweet a day of service from its drop-in center and outreach van in response.
This afternoon, PGPD announced that they conducted their sting but chose not to tweet about it. They made no arrests, citing the publicity as an intended deterrent. Despite PGPD’s claims of success, others are less confident that this was the plan all along.
Whatever the intention, there are valid reasons for outrage, including issues of privacy and due process. Individuals whose images will be shown are suspected of committing a crime, not convicted of one.
Just as disturbing is the effect this will have on the sex workers. Though the PGPD claims to “target those soliciting prostitutes,” the fact is this plan is guaranteed to harm women, not just their customers. Given PGPD’s—and police departments’ nation-wide—reputation for harassing, exploiting, and generally failing to help sex workers, it’s no wonder that many people don’t trust PGPD’s word. A photo of a plainclothes police officer taking a woman away in handcuffs did not help the PGPD’s argument that it will only target customers. The photo has since been taken down, but it is apparent that both johns and prostitutes are arrested which brings up a larger issue. If a sex worker decides to quit the life, an arrest record means additional hurdles to mainstream employment and housing. The shame that already exists for sex workers will only be magnified and cause further entrapment in a life that often consists of violence and abuse.
Even targeting the johns is problematic. As the National Center for Transgender Equality wrote in a letter to the PGPD, public shaming “endangers sex workers and creates additional barriers to accessing any kind of social or family support or alternative employment. Targeting sex workers’ customers isn’t any better – it further instills fear and makes it harder for sex workers to protect themselves by screening clients. In short, shaming not only doesn’t work, it’s dangerous.”
The PGPD’s live-tweet is an irresponsible PR stunt that plays into society’s existing dehumanization of sex workers. What may be an entertaining real-life episode of Law & Order: SVU to some is actually an abuse of power that has life-changing consequences for those involved.
Sexual assault, trafficking, transgender rights, and other human services organizations have been providing police training for some time now. Still, the question remains; what else has to change in order to teach police departments how to operate with awareness of social realities?
This article was originally published on Hashtag Feminism.