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."