Palm Springs Revises Policy After Sex Sting Flap
In a symbolic gesture, the Palm Springs city council has affirmed its support for a new police procedure following a controversial gay sex sting last year. The sex sting used decoys, or undercover officers; the controversy arose with charges that gay men were being targeted for arrest, reported local newspaper the Desert Sun on July 29.
The new policy, introduced by the city’s chief of police, David Dominguez, specifies the use of fewer decoys and more marked police vehicles, the article said.
The new policy did not nee the council’s approval. Even so, the council voted unanimously to support it, and issued a statement that read, in part, "Palm Springs has always embraced diversity and tolerance and wants the LGBT community and all visitors to continue to feel safe and welcome in our city at all times."
The article noted that two dozen men were arrested during last year’s sex sting operation in which decoys were used. The arrestees were charged with indecent exposure, a misdemeanor that could still land them on a sexual offenders list.
A July 27 op-ed in the Desert Sun claimed that closed-door dealings between the police and other city officials determined in advance that gay men would be targeted and set out the charges that those arrested in the sting operation would face. The op-ed suggests that gay men were the primary all along, and says that the sting operation was launched in response to complaints in the Warm Sands district--which is known as a gay friendly part of town--about men cruising and having sex in public.
The op-ed cites testimony offered by a police officer, Sgt. Bryan Anderson, who said, "Well, we did this operation several times in the past and... [due to] the way they pled these cases out before... it was my thinking that, you know, maybe we could talk to the DA’s office this time and see if they would file charges that we actually asked to file."
Anderson went on to say, "And I believe it was... agreed upon they would attempt to, you know, help us out and... they would try to prosecute for these charges."
The op-ed’s author, Thomas J. van Etten, went on to state, "I do not personally approve or condone anyone having sex in public, period!" That said, van Etten went on to note that, "these kinds of activities do not just occur in the gay community. People have been doing it in the ’bushes’ for centuries. The difficulty I have is that the Palm Springs Police Department used their own cops as ’bait’ to entice these men in the Warm Sands area to engage in what I would consider to be consensual sex.
"There were no victims here other than the men who were arrested and charged under California Penal Code 314, which requires them to register as sex offenders with police departments for the rest of their lives," added van Etten, who called the penalty "cruel and unusual punishment" and went on opine that "the Palm Springs Police Department acted unconstitutionally and entrapped these men while one of the police was using anti-gay slurs to describe the situation."
The slur referred to by van Etten was reportedly uttered by a police officer waiting in a police vehicle as the sting was in progress. In response to the officer’s slur, another officer can be heard laughing on a surveillance recording, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on July 18.
The Bay Area Reporter said in a June 28 article that the epithet in question was "cocksucker," and was used by the officer in a jest in which an officer questioned a suspect with, "Are you a cocksucker?" The suspect’s response, in the officer’s jest, was, "Yes."
"The police have used stings in the past to break up prostitution rings in the city but have never charged those people under California Penal Code 314," van Etten’s op-ed continued. "Therein lies, in my opinion, an unequal application of the law. Gay men are being treated differently than heterosexuals who engage in the same activity."
Van Etten suggested that the stings might have in part been motivated by a backlash from a "homophobic" police department displeased with the fact that some of the city’s officials are gay. Van Etten then suggested that Dominguez ought to resign.
Dan Savage reported at The Strangeron July 26 that The Desert Sun had published an editorial noting that the sex stings might hurt the city’s tourism. In an article titled "Don’t Visit Beautiful Palm Springs (Until They Drop The Charges)," Savage wrote that "there was no public sex, just institutional homophobia, police misconduct and entrapment," and quoted from the Desert Sun:
"[This] was not a case of the police arresting two men for having sex in public. There was no sex involved, just one "hunky" undercover cop who managed to get 24 men to expose themselves in public, according to The Bottom Line, a magazine that caters to the gay community.
"It took this cop 20 minutes to get one guy to actually do it, the magazine said. As is the case with most police stings, many of the men were married."
"Here’s the thing, Palm Springs," Savage wrote, "the men who were arrested in this bullshit ’sting’ operation-a hunky lone ’decoy’ cop in a tank top groping himself in public on the public’s dime-are still facing charges that could land them on sex-offender registries for life. Your police chief has already said that there will be no more stings like this. Great. Now all you have to do is get your district attorney to drop the trumped-up, bullshit, discriminatory charges that have been made against these men."
Attorney Roger Tansey, who counts several of the men facing sex sting-related charges, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the police did not simply patrol the area and discover men engaged in lewd conduct. He claims that the police decoys solicited--and initiated--the lewd conduct in question.
"A typical scenario would be a couple of cops, who were dressed in tank tops, would walk around grabbing their crotches and staring at the defendants’ crotches saying, ’Show me what you got. Show me what you got,’ " Tansey said. "In no case did they come upon any man already having sex."
The attorney also says that most the men didn’t even want to have a public encounter, claiming that, "in many cases the defendants were reluctant to participate and wanted to go back to a room or someplace more private and were coaxed to stay and allegedly expose themselves by the officers."
Chief Dominguez himself tackled the issue in an op-ed published by the Desert Sun on July 26. "Because an important demographic in Palm Springs is the significant LGBT population and tourism industry, the Palm Springs Police Department has a history of collaboration and outreach with the LGBT community," Dominguez noted, going on to say, "One of the more important but less known of our department’s volunteer opportunities is our LGBT Outreach Committee, which coincides with our philosophy of ’Partners in Public Safety.’ " The city’s resident gay population is also sizeable--by some estimates, up to 40% of the city is GLBT.
Dominguez went on to recollect that the LGBT Outreach Committee was formed nine years ago when gays were apparently being targeted for robbery and attack. These hate crimes led to coordinated efforts between LGBT "community members" and the police to educate the public and reduce anti-gay bias crimes.
"I recently met with LGBT committee members, Warm Sands hoteliers and residents, the Human Rights Commission and city staff to dialogue on improving the relationship that has been affected by the public outcry over the enforcement operation," wrote Dominguez. "I certainly understand the constructive criticism we have received and taking the appropriate action steps. We have scheduled LGBT cultural diversity training for all members of the department."
It’s unclear whether this will be enough to alleviate gay anger. "They’re really shooting themselves in the foot," GLTB equality activist and Palm Springs resident Cleve Jones told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Gay dollars are keeping this city afloat. Let’s get real. The gay events are the largest events in the valley. The gay tourist dollar is crucial to the economic survival of Palm Springs. And this story has spread far and wide across the world, and it will have an impact because people are angry. It’s ridiculous."
Moreover, the article reports, there is only a single openly lesbian officer on the force, and no openly gay men--reinforcing the perception that the force is homophobic.
Attorney Bruce Nickerson noted that the police were not simply arresting men at the first sign of illegal activity, but were pushing them to commit more serious breaches before proceeding with the arrest. "Every person was arrested for a registerable act, indecent exposure," said Nickerson, referring to the sex offense registry. "In the video of the sting which I reviewed, there were many opportunities to arrest persons for the less serious lewd act in public. But the cops persisted in their enticement game until the person was cajoled into actually exposing himself and then and only then was the arrest made.
"In most sting operations," added Nickerson, "there is an amalgam of arrests, some for soliciting, some for a lewd act, some for loitering, and a few for indecent exposure. Here all were arrested for the one offense which is registerable."
Police sting operations for the "victimless crimes" of sexual solicitation and public sexual encounters have been a focus in gay relations with law enforcement in recent years. In the fall of 2008, New Yorker Robert Pinter was approached by an undercover police officer as he perused videos at Greewich’s Blue Door Video shop. "He was very charming and cute, and we agreed to leave the store and engage in consensual sex," Pinter told the media.
But as the two stepped out of the story, Pinter said, the younger man said he wanted to pay Pinter $50 for what Pinter was thinking would be a casual, but not financial, transaction. That didn’t sound quite right to Pinter, but before he could pursue the matter, he claims, a number of undercover officers waiting outside hustled him against a fence, handcuffed him, and put him into a van, where he spent several hours as the police officers traveled around the city making arrests.
Pinter was later advised to plead guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct to avoid a trial and possible conviction on the more serious prostitution charge; he assented to this legal advice, but later regretted it.
Pinter claimed that 37 gay men had been similarly targeted and entrapped, with some of them declined to plead to a misdemeanor charge, opting instead to contest their arrests and, more importantly, the manner in which they came about.
The police said that Pinter was arrested only after being offered money twice, and that he nodded his consent to the offer the second time. The police also cite how one man made it plain that he did not want to exchange sex for money, saying that he was interested in the young officer and not in remuneration. In that instance, the man was not placed under arrest, the police said.
Most notable was the arrest of former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican, in a restroom in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport three years ago. Craig, who is married and says that he is heterosexual, initially pled guilty, but then sought to change his plea.
The restroom where an alleged exchange of signals indicating sexual interest took place between Craig and an undercover police officer attracted tourist curiosity for a time, but eventually interest in the public accommodation faded.