Caught! How Bathroom Stings Entrap Gay Men
"Entrapment", "unconstitutional" and "total racket" were just some of the words a Michigan-based advocacy group used to describe recent efforts of the Clayton Township police department to troll public restrooms for illicit gay activity.
The Triangle Foundation is conducting an investigation into a series of recent arrests in the state, which will culminate in a lawsuit if necessary.
Public policy director Sean Kosofsky said his organization has been investigating police stings of this nature for years, but that they have increased significantly in the wake of the Larry Craig bathroom sex scandal.
"These situations have always been bad," Kosofky said, "but the fact that we just saw a wave of them all happen at once in jurisdictions where we weren’t hearing about them before makes us concerned that this is a response to Craig."
Indeed, after the Idaho Republican senator was arrested for allegedly trying to solicit sex from an undercover police officer in a Minneapolis airport restroom, the American public, along with law enforcement officials, began to learn more about the underground subculture of gay bathroom sex than ever. Details of the police report that flooded the media revealed a veritable secret language of oblique signals used among participants--an arcana of foot-tapping, hand-grazing and other gestures as established as any mating ritual in the wild.
"All of the gestures that been chronicled in the police report have all been reported to used to signal public sex between men for decades," said American University anthropology professor William Leap, who has researched male public sex for over 10 years. "It’s not only the gestures that match, but the exact sequence."
But instead of lying in wait for the proper signs, Kosofsky said, plainclothes policemen conducting sting operations will often bait men by smiling at them, looking them up and down and engaging in sexually explicit dialogue.
"It’s entrapment," he said. "They’re encouraging men to break the law and then charging them with crimes they didn’t commit."
He also claimed that such tactics are often employed to either fill a quota or increase police department funds.
"Having conversations about sex in public are legal," he said. "As long as it doesn’t involve a minor or money, you can do it. And none of these men are involved in paying for anything or involved with cruising minors, yet they’re all being charged with crimes. Because they’re so humiliated, they’ll plead down to anything or pay any fine to make it go away."
The local police have maintained the ethics of their operations and insisted they weren’t unduly targeting anyone.
"We’ve only done about two sting operations a year," said Clayton Township police chief Chuck Melki, "but I’m thinking of doing more considering I’m getting so much flak over it."
The comment was reflective of his overall attitude, as he was generally hostile and unresponsive to EDGE’s line of questioning. Before prematurely terminating the interview, however, he insisted he was only responding to public complaints.
"We’ve had several 911 calls that people were having sex in public," Melki said. "We have to arrest them whether they happen to be heterosexual or homosexual. In fact, the last few arrests we made were heterosexuals. And we’ve done sting operations occasionally to curb that."
But Kosofsky said he had issued a Freedom of Information Act request for a record of the department’s public complaints, which, like every jurisdiction he had previously dealt with, they were unable to produce.
"If he has public complaints, why didn’t he have anything to show for it?" he asked. "I think he’s just not being honest, not admitting that they have no formal complaints at all, and that these operations are homophobic."
The Triangle Foundation has managed to overturn many past convictions in court by explicating the lack of any detailed offenses in formal police reports. In 2002, the organization won a suit against the Detroit Police Department for an unprecedented wave of sex sting operations conducted in a small area of a local park. The city of Detroit settled for $175,000 after a memo was leaked to show that the police department had boasted a $2.4 million increase in the wake of some 770 arrests, and rubber-stamped 770 identical police reports in order to justify it. The statute they had used to conduct the arrests, called Annoying Persons, was ruled unconstitutional and overturned.
"We were vindicated," Kosofsky said, "and a single arrest hasn’t been made since."
SOME (IN)FAMOUS SEX STINGS
Long before George Michael, Larry Craig and Florida State Sen. Bob Allen were caught with their flies open in public men’s rooms, there have been many schemes to entice men into attempting to solicit an undercover cop. Here are some of them:
� Five teachers and a high school football coach in Fresno, Cal., lost their jobs in a public restroom sting.
� More than 800 men, including two Canadian heterosexuals who were beaten after they were mistaken as gay lovers, were arrested by San Antonio park rangers over just two years.
� A respected official in a Connecticut town committed suicide after a Providence, R.I., newspaper published his name along with several others nabbed in a video-store raid.
� Another man, in rural Arkansas, also committed suicide after a Little Rock newspaper refused please from gay organizations not to publish names of men arrested in a similar raid.
� After a Harrisburg, Penn., newspaper reported a man for "publicly masturbating while other men watched," he lost his wife and his home.
� New Jersey State Police have been arresting men in rest areas and in the woods along the Palisades Parkway, a scenic route that parallels New York City on the western side of the Hudson River. In some cases, the police reportedly don’t even bother to wait for the money to enter the public coffers but simply extort cash on the spot in lieu of arrests.