Florida police accused of targeting gay men with undercover sting operation


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The Hillsborough Sheriff’s office–the county that plays home to Tampa, Florida–has come under fire over a series of arrests made as part of an undercover operation dubbed Operation Park Cleanup. At the direction of Sheriff Chad Chronsiter, a sting arrested 11 men in a local park in September on the grounds they had solicited for sex.

Arrests took place on September 18 when officers nabbed the men, ages 37 to 76, and charged them with misdemeanors, not felonies. Nevertheless, the police department released the names and mugshots of the men involved to local media, as well as posted them on social media channels. None were charged with felonies, sex crimes, soliciting prostitution, human trafficking or anything that would require any of them to register as a sex offender. In essence, sheriff’s deputies charged the men with the intent to have public sex. Convictions carry a maximum punishment of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Yet, since 2017, only two men arrested in similar stings have faced convictions, according to The Tampa Bay Times. Moreover, Hillsborough County, where the arrests took place, has no record of complaints voiced about anyone, queer or straight, having sex in public areas or cruising.

Related: Police arrest nine men in “pot for sex” Grindr sting operation, publish mugshots in newspaper

“People rendezvousing in public places is so common a theme that everyone knows what Lover’s Lane is, Lookout Point and similar places,” said Nadine Smith, the executive director of LGBTQ civil rights organization Equality Florida. “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 mugshots out in the public.”

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Crystal Clark called the charges of homophobia against the sting operation “absurd, and quite frankly, offensive.” She further asserted that the police force does employ LGBTQ employees and that the police department organizes “significantly more operations targeting heterosexual individuals.”

“Public sex, regardless of one’s sexuality, is illegal,” Clark said in a statement, “and in the eyes of parents who must explain that behavior to their children who are exposed, it is vile. This operation was publicized to make it clear that parks are not intended for sex.”

Nevertheless, questions remain. If a heterosexual couple met in a park and discussed having sex, would police arrest them? Do two men agreeing to sex without exposing themselves deserve arrest and public ridicule?

For that matter, if Sheriff Chad Chronister were not up for reelection this year, would his deputies stage sting operations at all?