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Coverage of undercover sting, arrests of gay men draws protest

April 9, 2012 |  7:08 pm

Map shows approximate location of an undercover sex sting at a public restroom. Click for more information on the area.

A Los Angeles gay rights organization has protested the decision by Manhattan Beach police to release -- and many local media to publish -- the names and photos of 18 men arrested in an undercover sex sting at a public restroom.

Leaders of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center charged that last week’s release of the mug shots, names and birthdates of the men could lead to public humiliation and more severe consequences.

The social service agency said one of the arrestees had reported to them that a fellow suspect attempted suicide after the results of the sting were made public. A center official said Monday that he had no additional details about the suicide report.

The case and the coverage it has received have set off spirited discussion on several news sites. Some argued that the arrests and publicity will be useful in dissuading others who might want to procure sex in a public place. Others said the attention given to the suspects, who have not been charged, echoed the public shaming visited on gays in decades past.

Jim Key, chief spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Center, said the Manhattan Beach Police Department could have worked with the center to try to stop men from meeting in the restroom, located beside the beach at the foot of Marine Avenue. Key said the Los Angeles Police Department took the public education approach, rather than mass arrests, to cut down on a public sex problem at Griffith Park.

Darrel Cummings, the center’s chief of staff, said news organizations should use more discretion before identifying suspects in what he called a victimless crime.

“Naturally we don’t condone illegal activity of any kind,” Cummings said in a statement, “but these men haven’t been proven guilty and historically, charges such as those leveled against them have involved police entrapment. Publishing their photos serves no purpose other than to humiliate and destroy their lives.”

The activist organization suggested that Manhattan Beach may have publicized the arrests because of the suspects’ sexual orientation. City Atty. Roxanne Diaz denied that, saying police in the city commonly release names, birthdates and photos of those arrested for crimes, including misdemeanors.

Key argued that some big-city police departments are less likely to release photos and that Manhattan Beach should exercise more discretion.

Among the media that displayed some, or all, of the photos were the Torrance-based Daily Breeze newspaper; the alternative LA Weekly newspaper; CBS2, KCAL9, NBC4 and KTLA, the latter owned by Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times. The Times did not write a story on the arrests, but the newspaper posted KTLA’s video of the story. The Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” page did not run the name or photos of the arrestees, but the site posted the NBC4 video, which showed several of the suspects' mug shots.

Representatives of the outlets that covered the story defended the publication of the photos. One Daily Breeze journalist, who declined to be identified while speaking without clearance from management, said the paper often publishes mug shots with crime stories.

“Why wouldn't we use them? We run mugs all the time when the police release them to us, both misdemeanor and felony,” said the journalist. “Now we are supposed to protect some people, but not others?”

An LA Weekly blog post put the onus on the Police Department for the photos entering the public domain. Writer Simone Wilson said Manhattan Beach police “sentenced the mug  shots to eternal life as soon as it threw them to the undiscerning Internet.”

Wilson took a flip approach to the allegations (“Sounds like they were having quite a party in there,” the Weekly reporter wrote) but said in a subsequent post that the tone had nothing to do with the arrestees’ sexual orientation.

“If there was a heterosexual orgyfest going on at some public restroom in Manhattan Beach,” Wilson wrote, “we’d be equally intrigued/horrified/amused.”

Kevin Cody, the veteran editor and publisher of the Easy Reader, bucked the trend. The alternative weekly did not run the pictures of the men, who ranged in age from 20 to 59.

“In general, we don’t run names or photos from ‘police beat’ reports because reporting a person’s arrest leads to the inference they are guilty, which they may not be,” Cody said via email. “And we rarely follow up on ‘police beat’ type crimes, which means that, even if arrestees are found innocent, readers are left with the inference that they are guilty.”

Cody added: “Imagine the hell one of those 18 would be unfairly put through if he just happened to get caught up in the sting when all he was doing was taking a leak after jogging on the Strand.”

Manhattan Beach police expect to submit the case to the district attorney’s office, probably this week. Among the possible misdemeanor charges: soliciting/engaging in lewd conduct in public place, loitering around a public toilet for the purpose of a lewd or unlawful act and indecent exposure.


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-- James Rainey


Map: Approximate location of an undercover sex sting at a public restroom. Credit: Los Angeles Times