Cruisin' for a Bustin'

For Adams County deputies, making sex arrests was a walk in the park.

In January, Lambda Legal, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for gay, lesbian and bisexual civil rights, published the Little Black Book, a pamphlet that "tells men who have sex with men about their legal rights if they are harassed or arrested while cruising for sex in public."

The publication advises, "Be aware that undercover cops may be 'cruising' you. A cop doesn't have to tell you he's a cop, even if you ask. If you're cruising for sex and an undercover cop hits on you, what you do can still be a crime, even if he comes on to you first."

In the summer of 2002, five Michigan men who'd been arrested during a six-month sting in Detroit's Rogue Park won an $850,000 judgment against the City of Detroit when a federal judge determined that undercover officers had made sexually suggestive gestures to the men prior to arresting them, which the judge ruled was illegal entrapment. The men each received $170,000, and their arrest records were purged.

"These stings are not just bad community policing; they're also potentially a liability issue," says Equality Colorado's de Percin. "It's really the most Neanderthal way of addressing the problem. You don't see them cracking down on heterosexual teens having sex in cars in Adams County. You don't see the same sense of moral outrage over teens getting it on. It's a double standard, it's selective enforcement, and it's not right."

I observed the suspect walking eastbound on the county trails. He passed me and made eye contact and asked me what I liked. I said, "Just about everything." I then asked him what he liked and he said, "I like to suck." He then told me, "The cops have been hitting the park quite heavily and had almost ruined what had been a good place to cruise." He then attempted to grab my genitals and I placed him under arrest.

-- arrest of a 68-year-old Denver resident at 2 p.m. September 18.

Word of Adams County's undercover sex busts first surfaced in October, after an off-duty Colorado highway patrolman was arrested at Lafayette Park, where an undercover deputy reportedly observed him engaging in oral sex with another man on October 7. According to the arrest report, the suspect identified himself as a state trooper and pleaded with the deputy to issue him a summons with a court date set on a Saturday, when no courts are in session, thus ensuring that his case would be dismissed. The deputy refused, and the patrolman was fired ten days later after a speedy internal investigation by the Colorado State Patrol determined that his conduct was "inconsistent with agency tradition and values."

On November 12, the Adams County Sheriff's Office held a press conference to publicize the ongoing park sting and issued the following release:

"Over the past couple of years, Adams County Deputies have been working diligently to stop the illegal sexual acts occurring along the trails in Adams County. The trail system is designed and provided for citizens within our community and is used for hiking, biking, and family outings. Adams County Parks and Trail system has been targeted as locations to frequent the park for sexual acts and favors from other men. The Sheriff's Office is taking a proactive approach and targeting males who frequent our parks for illegal purposes. Taking a strong stand against this type of behavior we believe will not only reduce this behavior, but also hopefully eliminate this behavior in our parks. Our ultimate goal is to provide safe parks and trails for the families of Adams County and to improve the quality of life."

But in the days following, the sheriff's office came under fire from gay-rights activists who branded the undercover investigation homophobic, unfair and a waste of law-enforcement time and money. (Although Dixon offers no estimates on the cost of the undercover operation, the arrest records indicate that the five deputies have spent at least sixty hours total in the parks thus far.)

"It doesn't take a law-enforcement genius to come up with a more efficient, more humane, more intelligent way of curtailing this activity," says Michael Adams, Lambda Legal's director of education and public affairs. "For example, why not just have a single uniformed officer park his or her car in the parking lot and then patrol the park on foot, in uniform? Why the need for a squadron of undercover officers posing as gay men, trying to lure other men into sexual behavior?"

Local activists point to the Denver Police Department's less confrontational approach to cruising in Cheesman Park as an example of a community-based policing model that Adams County could have followed. In the summer of 2000, the DPD cooperated with gay-rights groups handing out fliers to motorists in Cheesman warning that police enforcement of traffic problems, curfew violations and "inappropriate activity" was being stepped up and that owners of vehicles engaged in "suspicious activity" might receive letters at their homes. Cheesman Park residents credited the campaign with cutting down on the park's more blatant cruising.

That's not to say that Cheesman has been rendered sexless. More than one Denver scofflaw who has run his dog off-leash in the park has suffered the consequences when a pooch that goes off to retrieve a ball returns with a used condom in its mouth. And during her January 31 concert at the Pepsi Center, Bette Midler gave a shout-out to all the "Cheesman Park boys" in the audience. "I'm glad you stopped cruising long enough to come visit me," she joked.

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