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A police department is trying to curb prostitution through Facebook-shaming

“This is not ‘Pretty Woman’ out here…we’re trying to save lives and neighborhoods.”


EJ Dickson

Internet Culture

Police are always coming up with new and inventive ways to shame and punish those who are involved in prostitution, from sending “Dear John” letters informing car owners their vehicles were seen in high prostitution areas, to using condoms in women’s purses as evidence of prostitution. Now, the Richmond, California police department has come up with another way to address the issue of sex work in their community: by outing johns on Facebook and Twitter.

According to local news station KTVU, Richmond police plan to post photos of men arrested in prostitution stings on their Facebook and Twitter pages, along with their full names. “We all know when something is put on social media, it spreads like wildfire,” Richmond PD Sgt. Nicole Abetkov told KTVU. The john-outing initiative is intended to shame men into thinking twice before buying sex or frequenting high prostitution areas.

Police departments using Twitter as a platform for broadcasting recent busts is nothing new, and Richmond chief of police Chris Magnus is already quite active on the platform. He posted the following tweet about a 61-year-old sex worker who was recently busted in the Richmond area:

New meaning to “World’s Oldest Profession”: 61yr/f arrested last week on Ohio Ave for prostitution. Ofcrs working w/residents to abate this.

— Chris Magnus (@RPDChiefMagnus) March 13, 2014

But posting johns’ booking photos on social media is a relatively radical law enforcement tactic, particularly because the men who were arrested might not ever even be convicted of a crime. In an email to the Daily Dot, Magnus defended the john-outing initiative: “Releasing the names and booking photos of persons arrested in CA is a matter of public record and required under our state’s Public Records Act. Displaying these photos for a range of crimes is common by the news media and police agencies.”

KTVU reports that the Richmond Police Department’s john-outing initiative apparently extends to sex workers as well: In addition to broadcasting the mugshots of four johns, the station also featured a photograph of the aforementioned 61-year-old sex worker. Magnus says, however, his department has not yet posted any photos of johns or sex workers on social media, and that KTVU is the only outlet to have released the images.

Yet the Richmond Police Department draws a distinction between arresting johns and arresting sex workers, couching their policy in the language of “saving” or “helping” sex workers.

“For very young women who are being exploited/trafficked, it may be necessary to arrest them in order to get them assistance,” Magnus told the Daily Dot.  “Many of these girls are being held against their will and cannot escape their pimps without us making an arrest. We generally work with local service providers to engage the prostitutes/human trafficking victims with resources and assistance to help them stop being sexually exploited.”

Sgt. Walle arrested 17yr/f for prostitution activity on 23rd/Esmond last night. Sometimes arresting these kids is nec to get them help.

— Chris Magnus (@RPDChiefMagnus) March 7, 2014

It’s unclear exactly what these resources are, or how shaming johns and sex workers (not to mention basically rendering them unemployable in any other field by broadcasting their names and faces on social media) will serve to help them, or curb prostitution, in any way. But Magnus believes the john-shaming initiative is a crucial step in protecting sex workers, as well as the Richmond community at large, which has often complained of the high volume of sex work activity in certain neighborhoods.  

“This is not Pretty Woman out here… We are trying to save lives and neighborhoods,” he told the Daily Dot. “I offer no apologies for doing either.”

H/T SFist | Illustration by Jason Reed

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