Fallout of a police sting in a safe place
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.