If you are looking for some old-fashioned muckraking journalism for your weekend, you won’t have to look much further than the South Florida Gay News investigation of park arrests in Palm Beach. Looking at hundreds of police reports, depositions of the police, and talking to arrested men and their lawyers, the story paints a picture of potential entrapment, an unclear mandate from the parks where the arrests are taking place, and evidence that the efforts are focused solely on men pursuing sex men.
Here’s the lede:
Randy McGilton, Shawn Browser, and Gerry Sanders have never met but they have something in common: They were all arrested by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in a five-year undercover operation targeting gay men having sex in parks.
And they weren’t the only ones.
Those three men represent just a few of the more than 600 arrests made by Detectives Peter Lazar and his partner Vaniclov “Van” Garner, from 2005 to 2010. SFGN reviewed more than 300 of those police reports starting with the year 2007, but PBSO acknowledged their operation began two years before that.
Only a handful of the arrests – four to be exact — were between two men. The rest of them involved an undercover detective soliciting another man for sex using tactics that one lawyer called “disgusting,” while another lawyer questioned the legality of the detectives’ behavior.
The coverage also includes an editorial by Publisher Norm Kent where he talks about the role of the LGBT press and stonewalling by local officials:
The truth is the LGBT press is now more than entertainment magazines showcasing our nightlife. It consists of representatives in nationally affiliated organizations, from the Florida Press Association to the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. The story we report on today was investigated over two years, and required this newspaper spending close to two thousand dollars in public records requests to review over 300 police reports and other materials. The results speak for themselves, as does the silence of the Palm Beach sheriff’s office. Rick Bradshaw, you should be embarrassed.
Nevertheless, without the sheriff’s input, this newspaper reaches the conclusion that for a period in excess of five years a task force of officers was deployed in public parks to interdict sexual activity but wound up instead creating and then perpetuating the very criminal activity they were assigned to stop.
We conclude that the Sheriff’s office unjustly targeted, improperly arrested, and then selectively prosecuted gay men in Palm Beach County public parks.
The issue of park arrests is tricky. It’s easy to moralize on all sides of the thorny question of public sex. But this series avoids that trap by focusing instead on police tactics, showing how few cases involved actual sex, and that many of the men arrested were approached by officers (or even responded to Craigslist ads) who initiated sexual contact. The paper has done significant work here and really shown that old-fashioned investigative journalism into police behavior–even (or especially) in 2012–is still a part of the legacy of the LGBT press.
It’s unlikely that the mainstream press would have taken on an investigation like this and most park arrest stories in the mainstream press focus on the lurid side of the practice, never questioning the police behavior but instead cooperating with the police. That’s why a strong press focused on the LGBT community is important.