Palm Springs Officer Apologizes for Sex Sting Slur
An investigation into sex sting tactics used during the summer of 2009 in Palm Springs has concluded that "portions of the operation were not conducted according to professional standards," including an epithet used by an officer in the course of the operation.
A June 28 Bay Area Reporter story said that the Palm Springs police department mounted the sex sting operation in the Warm Sands area over a three-day period in June, 2009, in response to reports of public sex acts.
"The arrests took place after a decoy officer coaxed each of the 19 men to expose his penis in a dark parking lot of a gay resort," the Bay Area Reporter story said. "The men are being charged with penal code section 314, a charge that will require the men, if convicted, to register as sex offenders for life. The men would be on a sex offender registry in a database accessible to law enforcement only."
The article noted that attorney Bruce Nickerson brought attention to use of a slur caught on a recording of a conversation between a police decoy and a police officer who was in radio contact with him. The officer told the decoy that he could simply ask suspects, ""Are you a cocksucker?"
Nickerson also pointed out that the arrests were for an offense that would tar each of the men for life. "Every person was arrested for a registerable act, indecent exposure," the attorney noted. "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."
A second epithet was hurled by Police Chief David Dominguez, reported the blog The Mad Professah Lectures on Dec. 29. According to the posting, Dominguez, after initially denying he had called the men placed under arrest during the sex sting operation "a bunch of filthy motherfuckers," eventually apologized for the slur.
The article went on to say that in addition to finding that officers had uttered "Disturbingly offensive remarks" during the sting operation, the investigation found that the police did not notify local businesses of their activities. Also, the police ought to have used surveillance, rather than deploying a police decoy. A report on the findings was prepared by City Manager David Ready, a Dec. 29 Desert Sun article said.
"Portions of the operation were not conducted according to the professional standards that are expected of our Police Department," the report stated. "As a result, appropriate disciplinary and corrective action has already been taken."
Last summer, Dominguez told the media that he had not made the comment. "If someone told you I was in that car when that slur was made, that’s a lie. And that is a total lie," the police chief declared to City News Service.
But on Dec. 28, Dominguez admitted in an email that he had made the remark, and offered an apology. "An inappropriate comment made by me did not display the utmost professional conduct expected from the chief of police and I sincerely apologize to the community at large," Dominguez wrote, according to a Valley News story from that same day. Added Dominguez, "I believe we have all learned much about perception and sensitivity," he said. "While we are not perfect, we make every attempt to understand and embrace the diversity of our community." Plans have been drawn up to provide diversity training for the city’s police officers and for other city employees.
"It is also my intent that the unprofessional conduct and comments made in the course of the operation will not happen again," Ready stated, according to a Dec. 28 report at the website for news station KESQ. "Ultimately as City Manager, I have to be sure that all operations of city government are appropriate, both legally and ethically, and serve the best interests of the community. In this case, I regret and am embarrassed by the extremely offensive comments that have been attributed to some members of our team and must apologize to the community."
In the wake of Dominguez’s apology, Ready said that the police chief would not face dismissal, the Desert Sun reported. "I’m convinced that his statement, although inappropriate... was not made in any discriminatory regard," said Ready.
A hearing for all of the men arrested in the sting operation has been scheduled for next month, the article said, going on to note that their lawyer, Roger Tansey has cited "discriminatory intent" behind the operation and moved that the charges be dropped. "Certainly to the extent that you have the police chief calling them names and officers down the line calling them names, I would assume a judge would agree that is discriminatory," Tansey told the press.
The questions surrounding the sex sting operation led to revisions in how the department would investigate similar complaints in the future, including no longer using decoys. But a number of issues, including how the operation was conceived and executed, fed into the overall debate.
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.
Back Room Deals?
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."
The op-ed’s author, Thomas J. van Etten, stated, "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."
Similar questions arose in New Jersey last summer when a man was shot and killed by a police officer involved in a sex sting operation in Branch Brook Park, in Newark.
"We believe any operation targeting people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation would be a violation of state law," wrote Garden State Equality and the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey in a joint letter to Essex County’s Sheriff’s Department. The letter also was addressed to the county’s Prosecutor.
"New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination expressly outlaws discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation," the letter continued. "In no way do we condone any violation of lewdness statutes. But any sting operation targeting gay men or LGBT people specifically, or anyone perceived as such, is unconscionable-and as we strongly believe, illegal."
The suspect in the case was DeFarra "Dean" Gaymon, 48, a father of four and head of the Credit Union of Atlanta. Gaymon was in town for a class reunion; according to police, Gaymon approached an undercover officer in the park on the evening of July 16 and propositioned him for sex. When the officer attempted to arrest him, the man threw the officer to the ground and took off. When the officer caught up with him, the suspect reportedly tried to attack the officer, who shot him down; three hours later, the suspect died in a local hospital.
Gaymon’s family rejected that claim. "We know that the police killed an innocent man, with no history of or disposition towards violence," a statement from the family declared.
As the police tell it, a pair of undercover police officers were patrolling the park, on the lookout for public sexual activity. The unidentified police officer had become separated from his partner at about 6:00 that evening, having lost his handcuffs while pursuing a suspect. It was while retrieving his lost handcuffs that the officer allegedly encountered Gaymon, who, according to officials, was already displaying sexual conduct when the two encountered one another. Officials say that Gaymon then propositioned the officer, at which point the officer identified himself. Gaymon allegedly then knocked the officer down and fled, leading to the chase, the confrontation, and the shooting.
But an investigation into reports from the Essex County Sheriff’s Office regarding sex sting arrests in Branch Brook Park and another public area, South Mountain Reservation, revealed a trend that some view with skepticism, reported Gay City New on Dec. 22. Again and again, suspects were described as coming on to undercover police, without any prior encouragement from the decoys, and propositioning them--or, in many cases, reportedly grabbing the officers’ crotch areas.
"To believe these assertions, one would have to believe that nearly every time a man made an unwelcome advance by exposing himself or groping another man in these two parks, that man just happened to do it in front of or to a plainclothes officer," the article noted. "That is unlikely at best, and that same issue arose in a 2004 lewdness arrest of a gay man in the New Jersey section of the Palisades Interstate Park, which is not patrolled by the Essex County Sheriff’s Office."
A single officer, Thomas Rossi, claimed to have been approached and propositioned by the approximately 100 suspects he had arrested over an eight-year period. Rossi’s story was similar: the men simply trotted up to him and exposed themselves without incitement.
But a number of men placed under arrest by Rossi disputed that claim, saying that Rossi had encouraged them to expose themselves--sometimes asking them repeatedly. The numbers involved prompted an appeals court to overturn a previous conviction against one of the men arrested by Rossi. Wrote the court, "Defendant presented a persuasive attack on Rossi’s credibility, raising serious doubts about whether it was believable that a police officer could have had almost a hundred men approach him, pull out their genitals and start masturbating without any enticement by the officer at all."
Another man recounted how when he encountered Rossi and another officer in the park, the two began to act aggressively toward him. "I thought they might be trying to gay-bash me," the man told Gay City News. "They started punching and kicking... I started screaming for help right away." In the end, the man was charged not only with lewdness, but also with aggravated assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, and attempting to escape. He pled guilty to two charges and got a relatively mild sentence, the article said, but "When you’re innocent, it’s not a good deal," he told the publication. "I got this better deal because I’m innocent, and the prosecutor knows that."
"There are some very suspicious patterns in these arrests, and they also heighten concerns about DeFarra Gaymon’s encounter with the Essex County sheriff that ended in his death," attorney William K. Dobbs told Gay City News.
If reports about sex stings in some instances are to be believed, the interactions between police and suspects--or passers-by--seem like something from the middle of last century, when police would routinely blackmail gay men (and some straight men who fell into their hands by chance), threatening them with jail and public exposure.
The modern equivalent is placing men under arrest and then offering a choice: pay a fine, or face stiffer charges and public exposure. The fees go to the city. Detroit is allegedly one of the worst places for such shakedowns; in an operation called "Bag A Fag," the city allegedly placed 700 men under arrest, sometimes for doing nothing more than responding when undercover police talked to them.
Such exposure can still push some over the edge. In Johnston, RI, a gay man arrested during a Jan. 16, 2002, police raid on a video store committed suicide after his name appeared in the newspaper as one of seven men placed under arrest. The man was the city’s planning and zoning commission chair, Stuart E. Denton. Activists organized a protest in response, but the mayor of Johnson, William R. Macera, responded with the statement, "As far as an apology goes, [the seven men arrested in the raid] should apologize to the residents of Johnston for engaging in that alleged behavior." The men had reportedly been involved in acts of mutual masturbation as they viewed pornographic videos.
One prevalent misconception is that if a suspect asks an undercover officer whether he or she is law enforcement, the officer must admit to it, or else any subsequent arrest will not be valid. This is, however, entirely false: an officer may falsely claim not to be with the police and any arrest made after that will still be prosecuted.