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Florida county sheriff accused of targeting gay men in sex sting

LGBTQ advocates question whether sheriff's decision to publicize arrests is an "election-year stunt"

florida, gay, police, sheriff, sting, men
Sheriff Chad Chronister – Photo: Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, via YouTube.

Some LGBTQ advocates in the Tampa Bay region are alleging that the Hillsborough County sheriff has been targeting gay and bisexual men in a sex sting.

In September, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister announced the arrests of 11 men with a series of sound bites posted in a YouTube video.

The men were arrested in two local parks — Sun City Heritage Park in Ruskin and Sydney Dover Conservation Park in Dover — after being approached by undercover deputies who would engage them in a conversation about sex. When the men agreed to sexual relations, they would be arrested.

“These vile acts by these men took place in a park, the same place where our children play,” Chronister says in the video. “These men made these parks their personal playground for their deviant behavior. It will not be tolerated.”

 On Sept. 18, Chronister’s office released the names and mugshots of all 11 men, ranging in age from 37 to 76 years old, who were collared in the sting operation to local media outlets and on social media. The men were then exposed to ridicule, harassment, and even threats, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

The sting, referred to as “Operation Park Cleanup” did not charge any of the men for attempting to pay for sex, human trafficking, or forcing themselves on anyone, or crimes involving children. But Chronister has touted the operation as an example of the type of “tough on crime” approach he embraces as he runs for re-election.

Those arrested in the sting face charges of “entering or remaining in a place for the purpose of prostitution, lewdness or assignation,” or, in other words, going to a place with the intent of having public sex or patronizing sex workers. A first offense is a second-degree misdemeanor, for which the maximum sentence is up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Since 2017, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has arrested more than 30 men in similar undercover operations. But only two of 30 men arrested over the past three years were ever convicted on the “entering or remaining” charge, with two others convicted on other lesser charges, according to the Times.

But some LGBTQ advocates allege that Chronister’s office is intentionally targeting gay men, questioning whether men and women who meet in public for sex would have been arrested or simply told to leave the area.

See also: Sheriff’s deputies’ union leader accused of politicizing gay colleague’s death from COVID-19

Nadine Smith, the executive director of LGBTQ rights organization Equality Florida, questioned whether there is a double-standard in place. 

“People rendezvousing in public places is so common a theme that everyone knows what Lover’s Lane is, Lookout Point and similar places,” Smith said. “If police run across a couple of spring breakers having sex in the dunes, they’re more likely to tell them to go home and get a room, not arrest them and humiliate them by putting their mugshots out in the public.

“I can only assume it’s an election year stunt,” Smith added, “and it reflects poorly on both his judgement and his character.”

James Amarosa, a defense attorney who has represented several men who have been caught up in such stings, told the Times he believes the sheriff’s office is targeting gay men. He claims that his clients were approached by undercover deputies first, and did not initiate the conversation about sex.

Even the Tampa Bay Times editorial board wrote an editorial questioning Chronister’s motivation for the YouTube snippets touting the arrests.

“Plenty of heterosexual people engage in public sex,” the board wrote. “In fact, the idea is often used for comedic effect — Fonzie after all wasn’t playing Tiddlywinks up there on Inspiration Point. Will the Sheriff’s Office be sending undercover deputies out to entice young women on spring break into having sex on a beach — and then use them as props to ridicule? We won’t hold our breath.”

See also: Transgender woman sues Florida sheriff’s office, alleging mistreatment while in jail

But Crystal Clark, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, defended the operation and dismissed accusations that the sting was prejudiced against gay men as “absurd, and quite frankly, offensive.”

She also said that the agency had run “significantly more operations targeting heterosexual individuals,” including individuals who have been accused of soliciting prostitutes and operations targeting human trafficking. But she did not mention any instance where heterosexual people were targeted for having consensual sex in public.

Clark also claimed that the goal of the operation was to protect children, even though neither of the parks where the sting took place contains playgrounds. 

“Public sex, regardless of one’s sexuality, is illegal, and in the eyes of parents who must explain that behavior to their children who are exposed, it is vile,” she said. “This operation was publicized to make it clear that parks are not intended for sex.”

She also said that the sheriff’s office has deputies who serve as LGBTQ community liaisons and who are part of the “most diverse workforce in the 175-year history of the Sheriff’s Office.”

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