Why should cops bother with investigations and due process when they can rely on anonymous tips and social shaming? That seems to be the attitude in Larksville, Pennsylvania, where police are bragging to local news that they bullied a woman out of town after a neighbor suggested she might be a sex worker.
“People living on Vine Street in Larksville say they knew something was going on at a home in their neighborhood and that is probably wasn’t anything good,” reports local news outfit WBRE. There were too many cars pulling up to a local apartment building and too many men getting out of them—at least according to one nosy neighbor, who reported this activity to the Larksville police and then spoke to WBRE on condition of anonymity.
Traditionally, police receiving such a tip might wait to see if any other neighbors complain, conduct some surveillance of their own, or pay the building a visit to talk with its residents. Not in Larksville, though. Based on that one tip, Chief John Edwards went straight to Facebook to post a warning notice to potential criminals.
“‘ALLEGED’ prostitution” is taking place “in an apartment in or near the 200 block of Vine Street,” he wrote on the department’s Facebook page. “Our department will use all legal means to bring as much pressure to bear on the person(s) involved,” he added, noting that “I and my officers will provide you with a never-ending stream of police activity.” He also said the cops would talk to “all the neighbors in the area” and instruct them “use video and photography to document” the comings and goings on the street.
Then Larksville police—still without talking to anyone at the allegedly suspicious apartment or conducting due diligence of their own—went to the street in question, put physical copies of the warning on any vehicles in the area, and handed them out to people door-to-door.
“We went down there, half of my department went down there, parked four cruisers, banged on doors, and made our presence well-known,” Edwards told WBRE. “It immediately stopped. It went from Grand Central Station to a ghost town.”
Yes: Unsurprisingly, police announcing that they are canvassing an area may make people scared to go there. But it’s hard to see how Larksville cops consider this a win, unless they believe their role is not actually stopping crime but simply driving it deeper underground or to other areas.
I’m all for police not prosecuting consensual prostitution, but I’m also for them not spending time spooking everyone about prostitution; not outing or mislabeling people as sex workers; and not storming into neighborhoods and barging onto people’s property based on vague, uninvestigated tips about too many cars near an apartment building. And if a tip is sufficiently serious to warrant some action, then I’d prefer the police actually look into what’s going on rather than just decide it must be about sex and announce that they’re watching.
If something truly bad was going down on that street, the police have certainly ruined any chances of figuring out what it was or stopping it from happening again. And if it was just someone selling sex, and police really wanted to stop neighbors from complaining about it without resorting to arrests—which would be laudable—then they could have at least tried giving a warning directly to those involved, not announcing to the whole damn street and Facebook that an “ALLEGED Prostitute” was in their midst.
Taking this to Keystone Cops level of dumb policing, Chief Edwards said he was satisfied with his department’s work because a woman had called him saying she was the one they were after and would now stop selling sex and move out of town. (Apparently, the number one rule of policing in Larksville is to never question the veracity of anything anyone who calls them says.) An investigation would’ve taken several months, he said. They were able to shut down an operation much more quickly his way.
Photo Credit: Larksville Police Department/Facebook
Elizabeth Nolan Brown is an associate editor at Reason magazine.
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