Los Angeles made national news headlines the past couple months: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa planned the layoff of 1000’s of City workers and the closing of City Departments. The Los Angeles City Council considered City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana’s recommendation of laying off 616 probationary Los Angeles police officers, and canceling the hiring of 103 more, saving $69.3 million from the $98 million budget shortfall left over from last year.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, whose only held the position since November 2009, told the press he’s in the process of transferring 350 officers from specialized units to patrol duty. According to the Los Angeles Police Protective League representing LAPD officers, this is due to the drastic reduction of police civilian employees. League President Paul M. Weber made it clear that “reduced police deployments throughout the city threaten to create a public safety crisis.”
Simultaneously, the nation was entranced as CNN’s Anderson Cooper spent the month of March reporting about the gang-ravaged neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the nation’s gang capital, focusing on the Hollenbeck area, where gang violence has plagued the city for generations: Where thousands of young men and women are gang members, where residents live with “gunfire, intimidation, murder and fear…where stray bullets claim innocent lives…where more than 30 gangs fight for turf in a single police district.” This is where Milton Bueno watched helplessly as his son Steven was killed on September 9th 2009 in a gang related drive by shooting. The homicide remains unsolved.
So it was with a sense of astonishment that gay and lesbian activists saw the nightly news report about an LAPD news conference on March 12, 2010. The LAPD called the conference to announce the arrest of 90 men. Not gang members, not men armed with guns, but of men engaging in the decades old practice of having consensual sex hidden in the densely covered trails of Elysian Park – next door to the Los Angeles Police Academy.
Robert Holguin, Channel 7 news, properly put it that “people meeting for sex at parks is certainly nothing new, but the LAPD says it’s become such a problem here at Elysian Park that it’s an issue of ‘community blight.’” According to Holguin, the LAPD reported that this victimless crime is “so prevalent it’s damaging the integrity of the community. The LAPD says it will be cracking down.”
Not a single member of the gay or lesbian press was present for the press conference organized by the LAPD. This event marks a severe departure from the direction of Chief Beck’s predecessor, William Bratton, who strove to ensure positive relations with the LGBT community. When members of the community asked why were “gay” men targeted for these arrests, LAPD Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz stated that “the increasing number of men who come to Elysian Park looking for anonymous sex has prompted the Vice Squad to launch these kinds of ‘sting operations.’” The most shocking announcement came from Deputy Chief Diaz:
“Very typically these are married men who do not identify themselves as gay, many of these men are Hispanic, many are monolingual Spanish speakers.”
According to Channel 7’s Holguin, who was invited to accompany the Vice officers and film the arrestees, the LAPD defended its actions as not being harassment or discriminatory: “The LAPD says it’s not targeting the gay community, it’s targeting only those who choose to have sex in public parks.”
The conference was arranged by the Vice Squad supervisor, an out lesbian, Sgt. Lisa Phillips. When asked about the choice of using police officers under her control to go “undercover” to pretend they are gay, Phillips responded, “I am not making up excuses in order to justify enforcement, I don’t have to, nor would I ever do such a thing, the community is voicing their concerns loud and clear.”
Northeast is adjacent to Hollenbeck area, and both area’s are renowned for their violent gang activity. Sgt. Phillips explained her use of valuable police resources targeting men in bushes in Elysian Park: “I would love nothing more than to focus my enforcement on other illegal activities but as long as this activity continues to occur, I have an obligation to ALL of the citizens living and working in NOE Los Angeles. All people have a right to enjoy the parks without running into people engaging in sex, stepping on dirty condoms, dirty feces filled tissues or empty lublicant (sic) packages.”
However, as early as September 2005, an independent investigation by human rights watchdog Amnesty International called upon the LAPD to halt both entrapment as well as its discriminatory selective enforcement targeting men who have sex with men. The Nobel Peace Prize winning organization had documented numerous cases of police abuse against the LGBT community by the LAPD. Their historic report is titled “STONE WALLED: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People.” The report documented that although the ratio of men having consensual sex with women in public was estimated at 90 to 1 compared to men having sex with men, LAPD’s arrest statistics were diametrically opposite: When it comes to having sex in a public place, a man having consensual sex with another man is 90 times more likely to get arrested by the LAPD than a man having sex with a woman.
As reported by AI Researcher Justin Mazzola:
“In Los Angeles both the Christopher Commission and advocates have challenged the LAPD’s reliance on public complaints as justification for the enforcement of Section 647(a), noting that arrests are rarely based on current complaints by members of the public.”
AI’s “STONE WALLED: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People,” documented that although the ratio of men having consensual sex with women in public was estimated at 90 to 1 compared to men having sex with men, LAPD’s arrest statistics were diametrically opposite: When it comes to having sex in a public place, a man having consensual sex with another man is 90 times more likely to get arrested by the LAPD than a man having sex with a woman.
Amnesty International’s report contradicts Sgt. Phillips’ remark that, “ It is not my concern as to someone’s immigration status, the question is never raised.” As early as 2005, Amnesty wrote:
“AI is also concerned by reports in Los Angeles that indicate police target locations where Latino and immigrant individuals are reported to congregate for lewd conduct enforcement.”
The LAPD was caught in several contradictions about their directed enforcement targeting Latino men at the park.
Sgt. Phillips stated that the goal of her ‘sting operation’ was an “an attempt to reach those who are (HIV) positive and hopefully disuade (sic) them from engaging further. HIV/AIDS is once again on the rise, I would like to do my part to stop that.” Yet, the LAPD told the press of the primary complaint: “On one of the parks many trails, the ground is littered with dozens of used condoms.” Used condoms. HIV Educators point out that regardless of the venue, when there is the presence of used condoms, this indicates the practice of safe sex.
Victor Martinez, Director of Programs of BIENESTAR, “The Voice of the Latino Community,” a leading Latino Community Service and Advocacy Organization that provides HIV/AIDS outreach, testing and prevention programs throughout Los Angeles condemned the use of the sting operation, stating that HIV/AIDS education and prevention is never achieved through arrests.
“The criminalization of sexual activity has always backfired,” stated Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest AIDS organization in the United States. “It’s a small fig leaf over a longstanding history of abuse by the vice squads.” With regard to the LAPD’s claim that the lewd conduct arrests were “an attempt to reach those who are positive and hopefully dissuade them from engaging” in unsafe sex, Weinstein responded:
“In general, fear and shame is not the best motivator to get people to practice safer sex, and the practice of entrapment is a blot on our civil liberties.”
In a second contradiction, Sgt. Phillips suggested that the arrestees should have used alternative places to meet: “Alternatives exist now that did not exist before.” She stated that the arrestees should have used gay clubs or bars. Yet, she confirmed the statements of Deputy Chief Diaz: “It is true that many of those arrested are Latino and self-identify as heterosexual and married with children.” Latino activists point out that these men would not visit a venue known to be gay.
Third, in justifying the hundreds of hours of police time used in the ‘sting operation,’ Phillips told the L.A. Times that she only sent two officers, once a week, for only two hours, to the park. Phillips told the Times the 90 arrests occurred over a ten month period. As reported on Page 14 (the first news page) of FRONTIERS, 3/24/10-4/6/10, Phillips told reporter Karen Ocamb that, “Police say they have made more than 90 arrests over the last 12 months…” However, Phillips was contradicted by the LAPD’s Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz, who told Channel 7: “The LAPD says there have been 90 arrests in Elysian Park since January of this year.” Importantly, if the truth was told by Deputy Chief Diaz, then these arrests only began after William Bratton left his position as LAPD’s chief.
Lastly, LAPD stated the purpose for holding a press conference was an attempt to reach out to the Latino community, and according to Sgt. Phillips: “Gay, straight, bi, whatever sexual orientation they are is not our concern. Our concern is to stop this activity or at least an attempt to abate it. ” Yet, Amnesty International pointedly addressed the issue of using the press or televising lewd conduct arrests:
“These operations do little to curb sexual activity at the targeted locations regardless of whether the media is alerted to the arrests or not.”
Amnesty International, professionals in HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and politicians in both West Hollywood and San Francisco (which also forbids the use of undercover officers in favor of uniformed personnel for complaints of sexual activity) advocate the use of alternative methods such as posting warning signs, increased lighting, trimming or removal of brush and bushes, and patrol by uniformed personnel as a better method to “curtail sexual activity without resorting to humiliating and abusive practices.”
This is not the first time that an LAPD Vice unit has been caught with their pants down. On November 20, 2005, the Vice Squad of LAPD’s Hollywood Division invited Fox News to accompany them during a ‘sting operation.’ Matt, 38, a West Hollywood resident, one of the men arrested at that time, stated that as he was driving by, he was cruised by a good looking guy wearing jeans, who smiled at him. When Matt parked his car, the man said, “Hey,” and walked into a dark alleyway. When Matt followed the man in, a police car immediately pulled up and two officers jumped out and yelled, “You’re under arrest!” Matt told West Hollywood officials: “They had a video crew, taping the entire process. It was humiliating.”
West Hollywood officials investigated complaints of unlawful arrests, and determined that LAPD officers had entered the City of West Hollywood and targeted gay men using good looking, well built, young male police officers wearing tight clothing, and that these officers lured men into a dark alleyway where the men were arrested by LAPD Vice, alleging the men had exposed their genitals. When West Hollywood officials visited the alley at night, they determined that due to the complete lack of lighting, there would be no way an officer could have seen a person undo their pants.
What most aggravated the West Hollywood officials, including members of the City Council, is that the City of West Hollywood forbids, by policy, the use of undercover police for such arrests due to the likelihood of ‘entrapment.’ West Hollywood only assigns marked patrol cars and uniformed deputies to discourage cruising. According to former West Hollywood Mayor Steve Martin, “The experience in West Hollywood is that visible police patrols are far more effective in discouraging lewd conduct than vice squad arrests. West Hollywood has had numerous successes with using marked police vehicles to discourage lewd conduct.”
John Duran, a Latino West Hollywood City Councilman who is also an HIV/AIDS advocate, disputes the claim by LAPD Sgt. Phillips, “Gay, straight, bi, whatever sexual orientation they are is not our concern. Our concern is to stop this activity or at least an attempt to abate it.” According to both Martin and Duran, who are both attorneys that represent men arrested for lewd conduct, vice arrests do little to stop ‘cruising’ or public sexual activity. “In representing defendants in lewd conduct cases,” states Martin, “it has been my experience that they will never tell anyone that they were arrested. Therefore there will be no buzz in the community about LAPD decoys.” Martin points out that the use of good looking, young plainclothes LAPD officers is much more likely to increase cruising for sex:
“Having decoys walking around only leads people to believe that they’re in a cruisy neighborhood, so arguably, vice activity encourages rather than discourages this sort of behavior.”
The recent Vice arrests and sting operation also violated LAPD’s own policy as set forth in 2000. “The LAPD chooses to enforce laws against people who are or are perceived as being lesbian or gay in a stricter and harder fashion than against people who are not,” said Myron Dean Quon, an attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of many civil rights advocates who pressured the Los Angeles Police Commission to establish an independent commission to investigate their claims that police selectively enforce laws to harass gay men and women. In response, the police department convened the “Lewd Conduct Working Task Force” under the oversight of LAPD Deputy Chief Scott LaChasse – now Chief of Police in Burbank – who served as the Department’s Vice Coordinator. The Task Force included members of the LGBT community, LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations, as well as openly gay and lesbian police officers.
The LAPD Task Force recommended a community-based approach to resolving any lewd conduct complaints, determining that lewd conduct arrests do not solve the problem and are not a cost effective use of police resources.
At the press conference, Sgt. Phillips told the media she receives at least two complaints a week about sexual activity in the park. LAPD policy mandates that a supervisor receiving a vice complaint must file an LAPD Form 3.18 for each complaint. By Phillips’ own accord, Northeast Vice would have between 24 and 96 LAPD 3.18 Forms on file.
Richard Zaldivar, the founder and executive director of The Wall/Las Memorias Project, hailed a “Local Hero” by LatinoLA, which named him as the “leading activist in HIV/AIDS prevention in the Latino community,” also created The AIDS Monument, the first publicly funded AIDS monument in the nation. Zaldivar was present at the LAPD press conference and has called upon the LAPD to provide documentation of these complaints. Not a single complaint form was cited or read from at the conference, and as of the date of this article, not a single complaint has been provided.
West Hollywood City Councilman Duran points out that the LAPD has historically used “lewd conduct complaints” to target the gay community. Oftentimes, LAPD vice officers
Will ‘call in’ their own anonymous complaints to justify their sting operations. During the 2006 sting operation, the Latino lieutenant in charge of the Hollywood Vice Squad and the Area captain also claimed the LAPD was responding to numerous complaints by “decent people.” The Vice Lieutenant insisted his men never initiated contact, but that gay men routinely approached his officers – including those in full police uniform – and without any provocation, exposed their genitals.
West Hollywood’s Hate Crimes & Domestic Violence Specialist Rich Ryan demanded proof of community complaints and specific details of the arrests. Although refused by the Vice Lieutenant, due to the involvement of additional West Hollywood City officials, the LAPD’s Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell – now the Chief of Police in Long Beach – intervened, and the Vice Lieutenant admitted that of the 27 men arrested, on only two occasions did Vice officers see more than a single man involved in any sexual activity.
The Vice Lieutenant stated that arrests by plainclothes officers were only used as a “last resort.” However, Rich Ryan presented an internal LAPD document which reported that arrests by “vice personnel have continued to target” gay men in the area. Under pressure from West Hollywood officials, LAPD admitted that the December 2005 arrests were part of a response to a “Master Complaint” initiated in January 2001 – four years earlier!
This practice of the LAPD was also identified by Amnesty International: “Comments to AI by LAPD officials suggest that complaints may be kept open indefinitely.”
LGBT and HIV/AIDS community leaders are shocked that the LAPD is choosing to target men who are having sex in the bushes of Elysian Park, especially since the LAPD admitted: “There have been 8 reported assaults and robberies within the last nine months. All in Elysian Park and all against lone males.” The LAPD has failed to provide an answer to the question of why they have not used plainclothes officers to arrest robbers and gang members in the park, instead of targeting victimless crime.
The Northeast Vice Squad is planning to expand their sting operations into two additional parks in areas highly populated by Latino’s. According to Channel 7 news reporter Holguin, “Police say the ‘culprits’ are almost always men.” In addition to continuing the ongoing sting in Elysian Park, the Vice unit is going to begin targeting men in both Griffith Park and Sycamore Grove Park.
By Mitchell Grobeson