A civil rights group has criticized a Volusia County Sheriff’s Office undercover sting targeting public sex at parks as a heavy-handed tactic that forcibly outs gay men and is disproportionate to the alleged crimes.
At least 10 Volusia County sheriff’s deputies dressed in plain clothes showed up at six parks across the county from May 30 to June 2 looking for people engaging in lewd activity as part of what the Sheriff’s Office dubbed “Operation Park Hopper.”
Deputies arrested 18 men they accused of various lewd acts, including exposing themselves or masturbating in public. A few of the men arrested were also accused of groping undercover investigators, all of them also male.
The operation, though, concerned Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal, a national legal group representing the LGBT community.
“It’s very disturbing, the effort to publicly shame and humiliate gay men. It puts men at risk of harassment, of even vigilante behavior against them, and generally these kinds of law enforcement techniques are more draconian than any alleged transgression would warrant,” Sommer said in a phone interview from New York.
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said sexual orientation had nothing to do with Operation Park Hopper. He said heterosexual couples would also be busted if they were having public sex.
“That’s unacceptable behavior. If you want to do that, do it at home and you don’t get arrested,” Chitwood said in the phone interview.
Undercover deputies wearing recording devices descended on parks across the county, from Green Springs Park in Enterprise to Lake Beresford Park in DeLand, and from Sleepy Hollow Park in New Smyrna Beach to Riverbend Park in Ormond Beach. Eye contact was made, words were exchanged, and men followed men down and off trails into the woods. That’s where the undercover officers say men exposed themselves and masturbated, leading to handcuffs, a trip to jail and media coverage.
The youngest and oldest men arrested were separated by half a century ranging from 28 to 78. The average age was 55. Prosecutors had filed formal misdemeanor charges against half of the men arrested by the end of June.
Sommer with Lambda Legal said police have other options besides outing men. Police could instead send uniformed deputies into parks to deter the behavior.
“We are not saying we are encouraging people to go out and engage in this in public areas of parks or anything like that but we believe it is wrong for the police to use disproportionate law enforcement techniques,” Sommer said.
She pointed to the men arrested in Operation Park Hopper, saying that they tended to be older, so they may not be as plugged into the Internet, social media and ways to meet other men online.
Dating apps and the Internet are not totally safe alternatives for gay men to meet other men, according to an email from Dr. Eric Yarbrough, president of the Association of LGBTQ Psychiatrists. Most gay men are not picking a public place for the thrill of it, he wrote.
“There are fetishes in which people (both heterosexual and homosexual) get a thrill from exposing themselves or watching, but the majority of the gay men I’ve worked with have used a park because they know other gay men will be there and have no other safe method,” Yarbrough wrote.
The stings play havoc with people’s lives, said Greg Nevins, an attorney with Lambda Legal’s southern region. He said a considerable amount of law enforcement effort goes into such stings.
“It seems like a very conscious choice to make life difficult for people,” Nevins said.
Nevins said there is not a significant difference between men at the park and heterosexuals at “lover’s lanes.” Or heterosexuals having sex on the beach.
Nevins also said that he believes that men who meet at parks don’t want to be seen by people who might disapprove of the meetings. Nevins is not representing any of the men arrested in Volusia County.
“Usually you are not talking about a real exhibitionist you are not talking about people who want to be seen by others and you certainly don’t want to be seen by people who are not willing observers,” Nevins said.
One of the people snared in Operation Park Hopper was Todd Johnson, 49, a 27-year Volusia County teacher who lives in New Smyrna Beach. Johnson spent most of his career at New Smyrna Beach Middle School but in December transferred to Volusia Online Learning. He was arrested at Sleepy Hollow Park in New Smyrna Beach.
Johnson had never been in trouble before in his life, said his defense attorney David Damore, who also said he had not seen enough evidence to make any judgments on the case.
“My experience in the past on many of these cases is that very often the police officers who are acting as decoys either misinterpret the actions of the other party or in fact are instigators of what they purport to be illegal acts,” Damore said.
Damore said that the arrest was the impetus for Johnson, whom he described as a talented teacher, probably deciding not to continue in teaching.
Aaron Delgado, who represents two of the men caught in the sting, said he has yet to receive the evidence against his clients so he does not know the strengths and weaknesses of the case. But one issue he will be looking at is how aggressively undercover officers acted toward their targets.
Delgado said he had a prostitution case in which two undercover female officers were telling their male target that they didn’t think he could handle two women. He said he thought the cops might have crossed a line in that case.
Delgado also questioned the focus of the stings.
“It appears that they are targeting gay men for this. Anytime you target a specific group of people it just makes me always a little bit uncomfortable and makes me want to double check. I’m not suggesting there is any improper motive,” Delgado said.
Entrapment a doubtful defense
Stetson College of Law Professor Charles H. Rose III said the issue is not sexual orientation in stings like the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office recent operation. It’s the behavior.
“If it’s indecent exposure,” Rose said. “If you are exposing yourself for sexual gratification regardless of your sexual orientation that’s not a question of orientation that’s a question of conduct.”
Rose said that an entrapment defense rarely works in sex cases, because the surrounding circumstances don’t work in favor of the arrested.
“Let’s say the guy’s in a park that’s a known place for folks to go and have a hook up, right? They’re in that place to begin with because they are thinking of engaging in that activity. And just because they were unfortunate enough to pick an undercover law enforcement person, entrapment doesn’t work as a defense,” Rose said.
Chitwood said he cannot put uniformed deputies in every park to deter public sex. And if he did send a uniformed deputy the person could only be there for five or 10 minutes.
He added that Operation Park Hopper was a response to complaints.
“I had people who called and complained to me that their kids can’t play on the swings that they can’t go sit there and have lunch without having somebody exposing themselves or coming up to them and soliciting them,” Chitwood said. “How about their civil rights? What group stands up for the people that want to use the park and should not be subject to a man masturbating or a man walking up to them soliciting sex and rubbing their groin and grabbing their ass? So their argument holds no water with me.”