Police department plans to live-tweet a prostitution sting

(CBS) -- The Prince George Police Department says it will tweet live updates of a prostitution sting on its Twitter account this week. It could be the first time that social media plays a significant role in crime fighting.

Not disclosing when or where the sting may occur, the department wrote in a blog post that it hopes to warn any potential participants that "this type of criminal behavior is not welcome in Prince George's County."

The announcement sparked heavy criticism of the plan on Twitter, with many fearing possible retaliation on the prostitutes themselves.

In a press release to the local CBS affiliate, police said that there was a misunderstanding and that officers would only focus on those who choose to solicit a prostitute, not the 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," the release stated.

The department is hoping that by live-tweeting a prostitution sting, it will discourage child sex offenders.

"Some young girls and women involved in prostitution are victims of human trafficking," police told CBS D.C. "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."

Activists argue that this is not the case. Regardless of who the targets are, increased police presence can spell trouble. Cyndee Clay, the executive director of HIPS, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., says live-tweeting the sting will ultimately have no public safety benefit, and increases public health and safety risk.

"HIPS experience has been that times of increased police presence and enforcement, regardless of whether that targets sex workers or their clients, that people are less able to negotiate for condoms use, can spend less time and have less ability to screen potential clients, and overall fear of reporting violence, coercion or abuse," Clay told CBS News in an email.

HIPS has reached out to a legal aid organization that is offering legal referrals and information to any sex workers affected by the sting. Clay says that HIPS is working on community outreach, and will hold its own campaign to raise awareness.

"HIPS will be live tweeting a day of service from our drop in center and outreach van in the hopes of showing an alternative community response to sex work," said Clay.

The PGPD is not the only police department criticized for a social media campaign. New York Police Department's official Twitter account asked people to post of themselves with members of the department using the hashtag #MyNYPD last week, it went horribly wrong when users began posting images of alleged police brutality.

© 2014 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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