Community members in Huntington are hitting the streets to combat prostitution in their own way.
“It’s just not right and people are fed up, so they want to do something about it,” said David “Alligator Jackson” Williams, an active community member in Huntington.
Williams is just one of many Huntington residents who are tired of seeing prostitution in their neighborhood streets.
“The prostitution problem, like most of our crime, is directly related to the opiod issues,” said Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial. “Right now, we have the concentration of the prostitution problem in the west end of Huntington.”
“[The police] have a tough job,” said Williams. “They’ve got other things to do. We’ve got drugs out there killing people. But people are fed up, because this is the big problem in their life. They don’t want their kid to be outside with the prostitutes.”
That frustration has started a movement, of some residents taking the problem into their own hands. It’s rooted in the streets and fueled by social media. Civilians catch men they believe are picking up prostitutes and post about it in Facebook groups.
“They’re taking pictures and they’re putting the pictures on Facebook sites like the “Johns of Huntington,” said Williams. “They’re trying to shame people into not going into their neighborhoods.”
The groups aim to focus less on the supply and more on the demand.
“They’re blanking out the girls’ faces, because the police always seem to target the girls, but the guys seem to go free.”
One of the reasons some people feel that way is because HPD arrested six women in their most recent prostitution sting on April 11. However, there wasn’t a single man, or “John,” caught that night. What most people don’t know, though, is undercover officers planned to also catch multiple Johns that same night, but their operation was compromised when people started broadcasting it live.
“It was our intentions to do that that night,” said Chief Dial. “Folks were coming up and telling us, ‘You guys have been exposed, your operation is going on on Facebook.’ That made it very difficult to make the arrests.”
The residents broadcasted that a sting operation was happening, with good intentions, but didn’t realize criminals could be watching as well.
“Some of them were celebrating what we were doing, they were happy about it, but when you post it live on Facebook, the criminals also know that,” said Chief Dial.
Not only can chasing criminals be detrimental to police efforts, it can also be dangerous.
“What if somebody decides they don’t want their picture taken and they want to get out and either shoot somebody or hit them, or something like that,” said Williams.
“Engaging criminals is dangerous behavior,” said Chief Dial. “We’re trained for it, we’re equipped for it and we’re bonded for it. It would be my suggestion that you not take vigilante actions and put yourself at that physical risk.”
Somewhere between concerned citizens and vigilantes is a happy middle, where Huntington hopes to find the solution.
“We’ve got a lot of people out there that want to help right now and that’s how we’re going to make Huntington better,” said Williams.
The Huntington Police Department does want citizens to get involved, but safely.
“I understand people want to be a part of the solution and we encourage that,” said Chief Dial.
A few things you can do include calling 911 if you see prostitution, giving information to HPD’s anonymous tip line (304-696-4444) and attending your neighborhood organization meeting.