One of the controversial stories out of Florida this year had nothing to do with the pandemic or Donald Trump.

It involved a law enforcement sting operation — one that smacked of targeting gay men, experts say.

The sting took place in September in a Tampa-area park. That it was the month before the general election isn’t an accident either. Critics say the style of operation, often coincides with an election season.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister posted a series of YouTube videos to announce the arrest of 11 men in “Operation Park Cleanup.” He called it a sex sting, many in the LGBT community said it had a feel of the anti-gay policing era.

“While it is true that public parks are not the proper place to engage in sexual activity, what is most concerning about these types of investigations is that the police often encourage the very behavior that they claim to be fighting against,” said Russell Cormican, a Broward County attorney well versed in defending gay men against these types of charges.  “Undercover decoy officers often act provocatively and flirt with unsuspecting men in an effort to entice them to go further than they normally would. By doing so, the police can sometimes cross the line into entrapment, which would constitute a legal defense to the crimes charged.”

In addition to the timing, other circumstances seem to follow a pattern. Undercover deputies try to engage with men at a public park or, in some cases, an adult store. The deputies then accuse the men of agreeing to have sex or engaging in some other ostensibly nefarious activity. Arrests and widespread publicity come quickly, shaking the accused who barely have a chance to digest what’s happening.

“These vile acts by these men took place in a park, the same place where our children play,” Chronister, who won re-election Nov. 3 with 55% of the vote, said in one of the YouTube posts. “These men made these parks their personal playground for their deviant behavior. It will not be tolerated.”

The “vile acts” and “deviant behavior” were low-level misdemeanors on par with a trespassing charge.

The men weren’t accused of human trafficking, forcing themselves on anyone, or being around children. None of the areas targeted in “Operation Park Cleanup” had playgrounds.

“Sheriff Chronister says it’s the accused men that turned the park into a ‘deviant playground,’ but it will be important to evaluate whether his own officers guided them towards that path through the behavior of their own,” Cormican added.

Chronister’s office sent the names and mug shots of all 11 men, ranging in age from 37 to 76, to news outlets and blasted them out on their social media channels.

The men were ridiculed, harassed and threatened online — some were outed to family, friends and work associates.

Critics say the operations are rarely a response to any public complaints.

Prosecutors often end up dropping the charges or agreeing to end the case in exchange for defendants completing a pretrial intervention program.

According to a Tampa Bay Times report, Hillsborough deputies have arrested more than 30 men in such undercover operations since 2017.

“I don’t want to stumble across anyone having sex in public, whether they are spring breakers on the beach or folks hooking up in a park. But I also don’t take my child to a playground-less nature trail in a remote area in the middle of the night,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. “Shame on the Sheriff for applying a double standard and using decades-old homophobic rhetoric to justify his actions.”

It happened in Hollywood, too

About 250 miles from Tampa, a pair of sting operations in 2018 at the adult boutique Pleasure Emporium in Hollywood followed similar patterns.

Hollywood police arrested six men in February of 2018 and then 13 in July of that year after undercover detectives visited the business. Arrest reports said the men exposed their genitals or were naked in a public place — some were charged with exposing their sex organs.

Police claimed they investigated the store after multiple complaints about public intercourse and other sex at the business.

One detective working undercover would testify in court that public sexual activity in the theater area of the store offended him. He said patrons solicited and groped him.

A Broward County judge eventually ruled that what the men were doing in a private booth in an adult bookstore was their business — it was not done in a public place. The judge said customers could expect privacy while in an area of the business where consensual sexual activity occurs in the presence of other consenting adults.

Prosecutors later dismissed charges against at least two men who had been accused of exposing their sex organs, but the damage had been done.

“Of course these charges are being thrown out,” Smith said. “These men are getting arrested and publicly humiliated for doing what Tinder and Grindr users do daily but without the app — seek other consenting adults for sex.”

After widespread publicity of the story and mug shots splashed on local TV news and within social media channels some men either lost their jobs, were outed, were suicidal or were disowned by their families.

Some of the other men participated in a diversion program for misdemeanor offenses.

Hallway

Pleasure Emporium in Hollywood followed similar patterns. Hollywood police arrested six men in February of 2018 and then 13 in July of that year after undercover detectives visited the business. SFGN file photo.

Double standard

These operations beg the question for many: Are deputies ever on the lookout for men and women meeting in public and agreeing to have sex? Would an arrest happen if straight people were having sex in a bar bathroom or at night on the beach?

Smith recently told the Tampa Bay Times that the Tampa operation was a waste of taxpayer money, and a way for the sheriff’s office to criminalize gay sex.

“People rendezvousing in public places is so common a theme that everyone knows what Lover’s Lane is, Lookout Point and similar places,” Smith said. “If police run across a couple of spring breakers having sex in the dunes, they’re more likely to tell them to go home and get a room, not arrest them and humiliate them by putting their mug shots out in the public.”

Stings and raids targeting the LGBT community declined in the late 20th century. In the face of public outcry, police stopped frequently raiding gay bars and cruising stings became less common.

Experts say while police harassment is less systematic these days, it has never really gone away.

‘When it’s gay, it’s perverse’

Sean Kosofsky has worked on police misconduct and abuse in the LGBT community for many years, including with Smith at Equality Florida, who he calls a mentor.

He said that whenever a law enforcement agency decides to do a sting operation there are significant resources at play and it’s usually coming from the highest levels of the department.

“If there’s a chief of police or sheriff saying ‘I didn’t know,’ it’s bullshit,” he said.

He confirms that media outreach is always a part of the equation.

“Ask yourself why they are contacting the press. They want to pander to the public that they are going after perverts and deviants to make a big splash without using any bullets,” Kosofsky said.

He said an easy way for depleted departments to make money is through the enforcement of nuisance abatement laws — impound fees, court costs, etc. — because “they get to look like they are law and order without having to deal with violence.”

In addition, Kosofsky said many officers who are involved in the stings get promotions or cushier positions on the force.

“These [men] are non-violent offenders, there are no minors involved, no coercion, no force, no victims,” he said. “Police believe they can get away with it and that it’s popular [with the public].”

Kosofsky concurs with Smith that for straight people, public sex is glamorized and public intimacy is something to be celebrated.

“When it’s gay people, it’s perverse,” he said. “Those attitudes are what [police] are hoping will give them cover.”

He said most of the operations have become less common as sodomy laws were struck down and the gay marriage movement exploded.

So is homophobia simply an inherent part of law enforcement culture?

“I don’t know that these individual cops or chiefs are homophobic, but you can’t decide to go after gay men and not be on some level [as a department],” he said.

Kosofsky said the names for these operations are often described internally as “Bag-a-Fag,” and “Peter Patrol.”

Trying to find solutions, Kosofsky has presented specialized training in law enforcement, but he said the main strategy that’s worked most over the years is political pressure for the targeting to stop.

Kosofsky has been a lobbyist for several gay rights groups and currently consults nonprofit organizations through his NonProfit Fixer organization.

“Our movement started fighting cops at Stonewall and we’re still fighting cops,” he said. “Law enforcement is supposed to be there to protect and serve and that includes us. If they want to earn our community’s trust, stop arresting us for non-violent crimes.”