|Marie Curtis Park. Photo via Flickr user Gary J. Wood|
Less than six months after Toronto police officially apologized for the 1981 bathhouse raids that targeted gay men, the cops have charged dozens of consenting adult men for having sex at a local park.
A couple months ago, the cops undertook undercover operation Project Marie at Etobicoke's Marie Curtis Park in response to community complaints about indecent exposure and an alleged sexual assault. As a result of the investigation, through which "a number" of plain-clothed male officers hung out in the park and at times were solicited for sex, a total of 89 charges have been laid against 72 people, mostly men, according to police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray.
Very few of the charges are criminal in nature.
The majority relate to bylaw infractions and provincial offences, including 36 for engaging in sexual behaviour in a park and 33 for trespassing property. Gray said the men charged were primarily consenting adults.
Though the charges are minor in a legal sense, they have the potential to ruin lives, according to LGBT lawyers who say the investigation is a gross overreaction by police.
"Toronto police sent undercover police officers into the bushes to wait for men to proposition them for sex so they could arrest them. In 2016," Marcus McCann, a gay Toronto-based human rights lawyer, told VICE.
"That is unacceptable."
In response to news of the operation, McCann and ten other lawyers have stepped up to offer free legal help to the men who've been charged. He said it's likely that some will plead guilty and pay their fines—which can be hundreds of dollars—rather than risk exposing themselves publicly by fighting the charges.
"There have been crackdowns on men who have sex with men in the various locations they do it for 40 years or more," said McCann. "We know for that population these kinds of charges can have very severe consequences around shame and stigma, the risk of outing, there can be employment consequences, family consequences. Something that's a fairly minor bylaw infraction has the potential to really, really disrupt lives for these men and their families."
He said depression and suicidal ideation are also potential outcomes.
Const. Kevin Ward, one of the officers who went undercover, told the Etobicoke Guardian cops aren't planning on easing up on their crackdown.
"I want anyone engaging in these illegitimate activities to know that this is no longer a safe place for this to happen. We are going to be at the park every day and we will not be tolerating it," he said.
However, some are questioning the allocation of police resources on something that didn't net many criminal charges.
"It's basically like a very expensive sting operation for jaywalking," said McCann. He noted that while police have publicly spoken about reports of men who exposed themselves to children in relation to Project Marie, child sex predators aren't who they targeted by using adult undercover officers.
"I think the Toronto police conflation of men who have sex with men with pedophilia is truly, truly troubling."
Gray said she could not disclose how much the police spent on Project Marie. She also couldn't say how many community complaints cops received or if there's been a spike in sexual activity at Marie Curtis Park.
She said the initiative wasn't meant to target gay men.
"We don't know the sexual orientation of any of the men who were involved, nor does it matter quite frankly," she said. "These people were engaged in behaviour that was against the law."
McCann said cops should have used a public education campaign, similar to the one they rolled out to curb drinking at Trinity Bellwoods Park. Gray said police started with that tactic, increasing their uniformed presence at the park and explaining to people what behaviour is and isn't acceptable.
Kyle Kirkup, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said for members of the LGBT community, the operation is reminiscent of the bathhouse raids.
"People may not be out to their families. To have the police kind of force them out of the closet in this way, I think the consequences are going to be really devastating," he told VICE
Kirkup, who identifies as gay, pointed to the controversy that followed Toronto's Pride Parade this past summer, when Black Lives Matter demanded that cops no longer have an institutional presence in future marches.
"I think moments like this community members think, Wow, if this is the way they're governing themselves in 2016, perhaps it's unacceptable to have the police in the parade."
He said a better approach would have been to reach out to LGBT community groups and work together to resolve the issue.
Police are planning a “Walk the Beat" event at the park on Saturday, to discuss the issue with community members.