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Fallout of a police sting in a safe place

Timothy Kincaid

January 12th, 2011

In 1990 I accidentally stayed in the Warm Springs district of Palm Springs. I say “accidentally” because I misunderstood what was meant by “gay resort” and thought that it simply was gay owned and a safe friendly place to stay where you didn’t have to worry about any homophobic smirking or unpleasant heterosexist assumptions. I guess I didn’t notice the “clothing optional” sign and it really wasn’t until much later that I realized that I stayed in the middle of what was basically a sex club without having a clue. Ah, naive youth.

The eleven mostly-small, often tacky, clothing optional “resort” motels that find a home in Warm Springs, are the sort of phenomena that could only spring up in a gay friendly and sexually tolerant environment. That may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does provide an outlet to a subset of gay men who enjoy a style of sexuality that includes less intimacy and more immediacy. And while there are undoubtedly those for whom Warm Sands is a consistency, I suspect that most visitors consider it an excursion, a place to get away from the normality of life and go play at hedonism in a safe place.

And what could be safer than Palm Springs? With a majority gay city counsel and perhaps half of the residents gay – often retired gay couples – who would bother the gay revelers? After all, Palm Springs is home to the White Party and the Dinah Shore Weekend and has long been happy to overlook a little excess in the name of tolerance.

Even before Palm Springs became the haven for men who decorate their retirement home with perhaps a tad too many mid-century gew-gaws (just saying), it was Hollywood’s playground. The glamor hotels were where the beautiful people came to be photographed in swimsuits, but the Warm Springs spas and resorts were built by folks like Howard Hughes to let starlets play outside the confines of 1950′s Los Angeles morality (and even occasionally for the male leads to leave their pretty arm candy and spend some quality time together).

This desert oasis has long been disinterested in puritanical morality and given the wild set a greater degree of freedom. But in June 2009, Warm Sands ceased to be a safe place for the sexually nonconformist. That was when Police Chief David Dominguez and District Attorney Rod Pacheco decided to crack down on the “c*cksuckers.”

Dominguez set up a sting in which “shirtless and squeezed into tight jeans, a hunky undercover Palm Springs police officer hovered in a shadowy parking lot and lured men cruising the Warm Sands neighborhood”. The sting involved fifteen officers over four nights and the police chief personally attended. In total nineteen men were seduced by the officers into doing something for which they could be arrested.

Personally, I find the notion of police stings to be troubling. It is difficult to know with certainty the number of otherwise law-abiding people who are enticed to an infraction of the law, but it is inevitable that such entrapment will result in “crimes” that would have never been committed. Such policing starts with a presumption of guilt and maximizes the lure in an effort to capture as many “criminals” as possible; Fat Freddy and Homely Hank are not the cops they put in disguise.

And such work does little to reduce crime. You don’t reduce theft by leaving out a pile of twenty dollar bills on a park bench and then arresting anyone who picks them up. And you don’t reduce the citizens’ exposure to lewd behavior by having an attractive man talk someone into briefly exposing themselves in the shadows of an empty parking garage.

But stings are a quick and easy way for police to demonstrate that they are “protecting the family” and “cracking down on criminals,” especially the perverts. And because there has historically been little downside to such action, these stings have always been around. And even an outcry by the gay community generally results in no punishment to officers or the police force and, at best, a promise of “sensitivity training.”

Yet, I’m willing to consider allowances for efforts to address a problem. If there’s a problem. And the police chief claimed that there was, indeed, a problem and that the sting was done in response to what police said were complaints about drug use, public sex and prostitution in Warm Sands.

The difficulty is that when the attorney representing the men asked, no formal complaints could be documented. In fact, during the previous two years, only two indecent exposure cases involving gay men had been reported (in a city that is half gay), while ten complaints involved men exposing themselves to women. None were in Warm Sands.

Oh, there had been casual mentions to council members about the goings on (and there undoubtedly had been goings on). But the residents appear to have mostly just accepted the cruising as part of living in the area, just as do the residents of West Hollywood and Chelsea.

There had developed, however, a pattern of police obsession about the Warm Sands district. Cops would drive by and if they saw men talking, they would tell them “take it inside” even though they were not committing any crimes, showing indication of committing crimes, or doing anything more criminal than, well, talking. And it appears that the police decided that the gay men in the Warm Sands district were an offense to them, if not to anyone else.

Yet still this sting, like so many, probably would not have raised much attention had it not been for the actions of the District Attorney. Most people are willing to shrug their shoulders and think, “well, I guess you’ll stay zipped up next time, won’t you.” Even when the police set out to entrap the public, there is an attitude that the punishment of those entrapped is not such a great burden and so they give the police the benefit of the doubt.

But Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco decided to take action that is never taken in these instances. Invariably treated across the country as lewd conduct, the men caught in such stings pay a fine, suffer embarrassment, and go on with life a bit more carefully.

Pacheco decided instead that he would destroy their lives. Rather than lewd conduct, Pacheco filed charges of indecent exposure, a criminal category designed to punish predatory acts on unwilling victims which requires the guilty party to register for life as a sex offender.

This gave the men reason to fight. And fight they did. Public defender Roger Tansey, who represents six of the men, set about asking questions. The answers he found shook up the city.

Tansey discovered that the sting was not actually based on documented complaints. Further that the police were well aware of a pattern of heterosexual lewd conduct at a water park and in a local garage and did nothing, making no arrests, designing no sting operations, and – as might be the tradition of the city – looked the other way. It was only gay men that the police chose to target and prosecute.

So Tansey went public and the city responded.

Pacheco, who no doubt thought that his excessive prosecution would be popular in conservative Riverside County, was the first to discover that cracking down on the homos may require a price. (LA Times)

Former Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco’s hard-line prosecution of the Warm Sands cases, which have yet to go to trial, rallied many in the Palm Springs gay community to pour money into his challenger’s campaign in the June election. Pacheco lost to Superior Court Judge Paul Zellerbach by 8,400 votes.

But Tansey’s coup came when he got the testimony of officers conducting the sting. Although the chief had long claimed that they had not engaged in slurs, it turns out that he personally engaged in slurs and egged his officers on. (Desert Sun)

It’s the first time Dominguez has admitted to making expletives during the lewd-conduct sting, which has sparked controversy across the valley over how it was carried out, the severe charges those arrested face, and the gay slurs police made during surveillance.

Dominguez was alleged to have said “what a bunch of filthy mother-f*ckers” and “you guys should get paid extra for this,” according to a Sept. 11 complaint filed by an attorney representing at least one officer who took part in the sting.

Chief Dominguez “apologized” and promised sensitivity training. But unlike virtually every other situation that we have seen occur over the past couple of years, in Palm Springs the community was too powerful. “I’m sorry for calling you mother-f*ckers” and “we’ll take sensitivity training” just wasn’t good enough.

Even the city’s report based on their probe of the situation was not adequate. Absent any details, a report of “appropriate disciplinary and correction action,” sounded like happy platitudes designed to make a public embarrassment go away rather than a city that took the targeting of a demographic for police harassment seriously. And as the city manager and some council-people rushed to Dominguez’ defense, emails poured in and Warm Sands based community organizations expressed their frustration.

Last Thursday, Police Chief David Dominguez resigned. He may not be the last to go. The fury over the city’s pooh-poohing of the situation may result in long-seated council people getting tossed out on their ear. Much of it may depend on the outcome of Tansey’s hearing on January 20th to have the charges dismissed. Incoming DA Paul Zellerbach (a Republican, as is Pacheco) has just been sworn in and has not yet announced how his office will approach the arrests.

The Palm Springs gay community is peculiar; it is older and in many ways quite conservative. Many of the gay retirees are Republican and even the majority Democrats often share the perspectives of men their age. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this makes them any less offended by discriminatory policing practices. In fact, it is precisely because of the perception of acceptance in Palm Springs that many decided to retire in a safe place.

Comments

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Tony P
January 12th, 2011 | LINK

And looking at the last names of the top cop and the prosecutor you just KNOW they were good Catholic boys.

I have not tolerance for police malfeasance and this is as clear a case as any available.

I’m glad the police got caught with, so to speak, their pants down.

And I’m glad the city council is going to get routed.

tim
January 12th, 2011 | LINK

The story of police overstepping their bounds and city managers protecting them is not a new one even in “safe” places like Palm Springs. The Chief resigned which is the best for all.

“I guess I didn’t notice the “clothing optional” sign”

Much like many of your other anecdotes – I’m find this incredibly hard to believe. If this is even remotely true you live a more sheltered existence than I originally thought.

Jim Burroway
January 12th, 2011 | LINK

I wonder how many men who were entrapped have already had to register with Califoria’s sex offender registry?

andrewdb
January 12th, 2011 | LINK

I practiced law for a number of years on Riverside, the county seat. Riverside County is a very conservative, law and order area, with pockets of liberal areas (Riverside city has a number of universities, for example).

I have no knowledge if Rod Pecheco is anti-gay. I do know that he, as did his predecessor, typically overcharged criminal cases and refused to plea bargain any of them. As a result the criminal cases backed up, the state declared a judicial emergency and had to send in extra judges to try to keep up, civil cases were delayed (sometimes for months or years) and eventually Paul Zellerbach, the presiding judge of the Superior Court, ran against and beat Pecheco in the last election. It is extremely rare for the DA to be thrown out in that county.

My sister recalls a sorority sister being excused from a drug case jury a few years ago when said woman reminded then-Deputy DA Pecheco that she used to date his college roomate (which meant she remembered the roomate’s bong in the apartment).

At least for the administration of justice, I am glad Mr. Pechaco is now doing white collar criminal defense work in an LA firm.

Aeval
January 13th, 2011 | LINK

I’ll never understand the logic behind crime provocation in order to deacrease crime, shouldn’t police work with crime prevention instead?

Matt
January 13th, 2011 | LINK

Thank you for posting such a thorough and well-written piece. I haven’t seen anything anywhere on the internet that has detailed the Palm Springs entrapment cases in such clear prose.

More needs to happen at that police department than simply getting rid of the chief — and I say this as someone who is pro-cop, whose father has been a police officer for more than 30 years. There needs to be a demonstrated effort to patch up relations with the community that the department has so flagrantly mistreated.

Gene Touchet
January 13th, 2011 | LINK

The link to c*ocksucker doesn’t seem to indicate who used this word.
Please clarify.
Thank you.

Michael Smith
January 13th, 2011 | LINK

First let me say I agree with most everything you say — with the exception of one. “If there’s a problem. . .” As a liberal-minded gay may who enjoys vacationing at the clothing optional PS resorts, I have to correct you. There WAS a problem. Just because there were few documented complaints, doesn’t proove the activity wasn’t happening or that the neighbors weren’t annoyed. Also, I believe that your article should come with a warning that if we choose to engage in illegal activity on a public street (rather than taking it 20 feet behind a gate), then we, and we alone, are responsible for the consequences. You wrote an excellent article, but occasionally we need to be reminded that just because we’re gay doesn’t mean we cn flaunt the law.

Ray
January 13th, 2011 | LINK

I wonder how many men who were entrapped have already had to register with Califoria’s sex offender registry?

None. If they are found guilty of the charge, they would then have to register. Also, the particular charge stipulates that because of the nature of the situation ONLY police officers would have access to a list of those who had to register. That’s in contrast to the very PUBLIC exposition of other types of sex offender.

This community KNOWS this sting was a SHAM.

Timothy,
Your report is BETTER than our local newspaper here in the Palm Springs area.

The police chief RESIGNED last week. There was an avalanche of outrage over his slurs and the heat just got too intense.

I’m hopeful about the new DA. Zellerbach appears to be an actual *sane* man compared to the MONSTER Pacheco. I’m also getting vibes that there is now way these guys will go to trial under the present charges, or maybe at all.

iDavid
January 14th, 2011 | LINK

Having lived in PS and going there a lot from LA, I know that there is a strip a few blocks long where guys hang out in the Warm Sands area. But a lot of them are there to get freely invited into the resorts by people who have paid and are returning from outings.

On the other hand there is lewd conduct that does arise, very discreetly however, very rare as guys want to go into the resorts.

It’s about $85 min for a room and lots of locals want the action but don’t want to pay, hence the hang’n out. So the bottom line is, guys don’t go there to have public sex outside the resorts, so it’s not really even a spot for focused playing around, outside that is. Cruising, yeh that’s the big thing. But if they can’t find someone to let them into the resorts, then boredom and mahem can erupt. And hot cops can make for buckling knees. Or they might get picked up by someone driving by, and the drivers drive veeery slooowly as they are there to cruise too, which is common. It’s actually fab fun for sexual explorers.

Glad the police are getting royally fuckt for the brash double standard. The main two are ones I’d like to see shipped back over the border. Though I like Mexicans a lot, I’m not into rotten enchiladas.

iDavid
January 14th, 2011 | LINK

PS Tim, thx for printing this. It’s a good update and I will stay tuned to what you write about it.

I am curious, did what I wrote above all fly over your head when you were there, or did you pick up on it?
Also, you sound somewhat puritanical. Have you never had a sowing-your-wild-oats period in your life?

Emily K
January 14th, 2011 | LINK

Also, you sound somewhat puritanical. Have you never had a sowing-your-wild-oats period in your life?

Nothing in Timothy’s article suggested any judgmental feelings about these sex resorts or anything against the men who operate or attend them.

So when a gay man doesn’t like going to “clothing optional” resorts for untamed sex and doesn’t enjoy cruising he’s “puritanical.” awesome.

TommiGunn
January 14th, 2011 | LINK

@Emily K Your snarky comment failed to take in one thing; Timothy did not say he did or did not like untame sex or cruising. Or that he was puritanical or not. iDavid’s comment was delivered in the spirit of inquisitive conversation. Yours was inciteful.

Perhaps your form of communicating could be a bit more amicable? As adults, more like to engage than disengage. Your subtext implies the latter, which seems rather childish and unproductive.

I’m amazed a blog would even have you as part of its staff with such a disabling attitude towards gay men.

Jonathan Justice
January 14th, 2011 | LINK

As someone who got picked up by two quite different men looking for sex when I hitch-hiked through through Palm Springs more than three decades ago (“Palm Springs is for sex.” one of then said.), I would say that everybody needs to talk to the Dutch police about how they police the Vondelpark and other cruising areas to assure the safety and even comfort of both the people who go there for sex and the other users of the parks without setting up a fraudulent conflict between good people and bad people. While many police officers know better, it is all too common that American police work is burdened with this false dichotomy. From Joe Friday’s Dragnet to all the permutations of CSI, we have been fed this attitude by decades of television programming, and now get an extra dose from Tea Party politics. It really gets in the way of being realistic and appropriate about law enforcement.

Officers patrolling Warm Springs with an aim to assure public safety and help all the parties there understand that there are rules to be observed so that all parties get to go home minimally injured are far more likely to be called in to assist when things really go wrong and serious crimes are discovered. Messages that more or less say, “Be Polite,” “Play Safe,” “Play in Private,” “Even when You are having a Good Time, There Are Some Rules,” “We are Here to Help You,” and “Call Us at_________” are going to contribute far more to public safety and satisfaction than a program of abuse, however moralistic its excuses. The officers involved will require a serious training program, but the good that can be done is huge. I’d even want them to publicly understand the Warm Springs part of their work as “Cruise Director Squad on the Landlocked Love Boat,” but I can see where some folks might find that going a bit too far.

Timothy Kincaid
January 14th, 2011 | LINK

TommiGunn,

Emily K is not part of our “staff”. She’s a regular reader and frequent commenter.

Timothy Kincaid
January 14th, 2011 | LINK

JJ,

Your comment goes to the heart of virtually every police v. citizen conflict: are the police there to make life better for all citizens, or are they there to slam down the “perps”? Are they there to facilitate life or are they there to enforce the law as they see fit?

Jay
January 21st, 2011 | LINK

This is an interesting article and a good discussion. As Timothy and JJ have said, if the police were really so interested in cracking down on inappropriate behavior they would have devised better ways of dealing with the situation than the entrapment policies they used and the charges that were designed to ruin people’s lives. It turns out that in response to the sting, the police have said that they will no longer use decoys. But in the interests of justice, these charges should be dropped. What is the purpose of even going to trial? I hope that the taxpayers are aware of the enormous resources that have been expended on this case (15 officers over 4 nights, to say nothing of the legal bills, and the prospect of further legal action). Conservatives should be appalled at this waste, libertarians should be outraged at the prosecution of victimless crimes, and liberals should be really upset over the discriminatory enforcement of laws. I think the only people who would approve of this debacle must be religious extremists. It looks like the DA paid a price for his actions. I think perhaps the Mayor also did. I was considering donating to his campaign for the House of Represenatives (against Bono-Mack), but decided not to because of his failure to address the sting. One might expect police actions like this in very repressive areas of the country, but not in Palm Springs. The acquiescence of the city manager, the mayor, and the city council to the sting (and their subsequent failure to be outraged by it) makes one wonder whether it really makes any difference to have openly gay officials if they are so insensitive to the history of police abuse of gay citizens.

Not in PS
February 2nd, 2011 | LINK

You failed to mention that three (3) of the five (5) Palm Springs City Council members are GAY, GAY GAY.

Also, the City Manager, David Ready, is GAY.

These self-hating opportunists supported the Police and the chief.

Even AFTER the police chief testified and admitted what REALLY happened, NO COMMENT TO DATE from THE SELF-HATING city council.

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