U.S. Park Police in Washington D.C. have made at least 26 arrests of men in the past year who went to a local park to meet other men over the past year, a public information officer told the Washington Blade newspaper.
Meridian Hill Park is a known cruising spot for queer black men. Sgt. Eduardo Delgado, a Park Police public information officer, told the publication that the arrests involved charges of lewd acts, unlawful entry, simple assault (sexual), and disorderly conduct. Delgado said complaints from the public were the reason for the arrests.
Activists and lawyers question however whether the arrests simply have the effect of criminalizing queer men of color who go to parks to meet other men.
Defense attorney John Albanes told the Blade that some of his fellow attorneys who represent some of the men, who allegedly were detained as part of an undercover sting operation in which officers pretended to show interest in consensual sex.
Albanes said some of the men were arrested for misdemeanor sexual abuse, which is defined as engaging in a sexual act or sexual contact with another person and “should have knowledge or reason to know it was committed without that other person’s permission.” Anyone found guilty of this act is could be imprisoned for up to 180 days, and may also be fined.
Preston Mitchum, senior legal and international policy analyst for Advocates for Youth, said people should ask why law enforcement is using public funds to “put queer men at risk” in the criminal justice system.
“These queer men are overall entering situations they believe are consensual and that by and large are consensual but for there being a plain-clothes officer who is actually setting up a situation for queer men to succumb to,” he said.
“So it isn’t a stretch of the imagination that this is intended to police their behavior … I can see these situations occurring more and more, especially in bigger cities.”
Queried by ThinkProgress, Delgado was unable to provide an approximate of number complaints that prompted the police action. He did not confirm or deny that the operation deployed plain-clothes officers and said he could not respond to allegations from a defense attorney that the men were being criminalized for what they believed was a consensual prospective sexual encounter.
“I do not have the information you are requesting,” the police spokesman said, suggesting that ThinkProgress make a FOIA request.
However, Delgado told the Blade earlier this week, “The U.S. Park Police receives complaints about lewd acts that occur within Meridian Hill. As with any other complaint of illegal activity, we then take actions to stop it. Plain clothes officers are just one method of enforcement sometimes used to deter, stop, and/or arrest violators within the parks.”
Although gay cruising stings are often portrayed as a relic of the past, there have been a number of such operations in recent years.
During one 2013 sex sting, police in Dallas, Texas police said they arrested seven men at a park, although a local activist said the number of detained was 22 in total, mostly for indecent exposure. In 2011, 50 male sex workers and eight clients were arrested in an area where queer men are known to meet.
David Booth, policy and advocacy director for Black and Pink, an LGBTQ rights organization that “seeks to abolish the criminal punishment system,” said that race, gender, and sexual identity always have to be considered when considering why police set up these stings.
“As far as I know, this is a known area for cruising so this tells me exactly the reasons why they’re doing that — so they can catch queer and trans people and queer of trans people of color,” he said.
Booth said the consequences for men caught in sex stings such as this one can be severe, even though in many of these cases, they are planning to have consensual sex.
“Because many of these are ‘sex offenses,’ these are the worst of the worst, and if they get on that registry the chances of them ever finding professional jobs are slim to none. If they publish mug shots and a list of names of people, that reputation damage is just enough,” Booth said.
In 2012, police at Manhattan Beach, California came under fire from LGBTQ organizations for releasing the names and photos of 18 men arrested in an uncover sex sting in a public restroom.
The police chief, Eve Irvine, said it was standard operating procedure to release the photos and that “it was never our intention to humiliate anyone, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual.”
This is just one example of what LGBTQ advocates say is a discriminatory enforcement of laws. HIV criminalization laws that rely on inaccurate information about HIV and penalize behavior from folks living with HIV, regardless of whether the behavior carries risk of transmission.
These laws are mostly enforced against queer men of color and transgender women of color, according to a 2016 report on LGBTQ people of color and the criminal justice system from the Movement Advancement Project and Center for American Progress. The report also mentions the frequent profiling of trans women of color as sex workers by police.
Mitchum stressed that LGBTQ people of color are being targeted through these kinds of practices. “Far too often, within LGBTQ communities of color, we know what criminalization looks like … We know what it looked like 50 years ago at Stonewall,” he said.
“It doesn’t stop at someone wanting to engage in sex in a park or meeting in a park to engage in sex at their own home. This is about law enforcement using whatever mechanisms they need to use and doubling and tripling them up to impact LGBTQ people of color,” he said.
“When you have homophobia or trans-antagonism, and you have racism and poverty, that makes the perfect storm to make sure people are incarcerated and experience the collateral consequences for a lifetime to come.”