By Jim Larkin
CLAYTON TOWNSHIP – The ongoing dispute between Clayton Township Police Chief Chuck Melki and the Triangle Foundation, over Melki’s undercover sting operations at an I-69 rest area may be close to an end.
But not because either side is budging much from their respective positions.
Instead, it may be the state Department of Transportation’s plans to improve the rest area, near Seymour Road just west of Flint, that ends the war of words between the two.
Melki said that the planned improvements – which include eliminating some woods at the southern end of the rest area used for gay male sexual activity – might trigger an end to the stings he has been holding. The work at the rest stop, which also includes replacing the existing rest rooms with a larger facility and adding parking, is expected to begin this fall and be completed in nine months.
“I’ll wait and see how that helps. We’ll use our common sense (to determine whether to stop stings),” Melki said. “I don’t see a need for any stings out there, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Melki said he has held about five or six stings at the rest area since he became police chief in 2003 and has ticketed about 30 people – about 80 percent of them gay – during that time. The first several times he had only male decoys but the more recent stings have included a female decoy. The most recent sting in June produced only one solicitation arrest involving a male truck driver who offered to pay a female police decoy for sex.
Melki would not specify what type of behavior – from innuendo to actual physical contact – warranted an arrest.
But Sean Kosofsky, director of policy for the Triangle Foundation, said nine times out of 10 in such instances, mere conversation about sex, has led to charges ranging from solicitation to loitering. He called such undercover stings a mechanism for police departments to raise money.
“Our understanding is only if you ask someone to have sex with you right then and there in public is it a crime,” Kosofsky said.
The Triangle Foundation expressed its concern over the sting operations about a year ago, maintaining that undercover police stings in rest areas and other public places unfairly target gay men and are a waste of public resources. He said Clayton Township residents, in particular, should be outraged that on a police force of just three officers, one or two are being used to focus on arresting gays for a “victimless crime.”
But Melki said it has not been the pressure of the gay organization that has led him to slightly soften his position on the sting operations. Rather, publicity of the stings and regular patrols of the rest area has led to fewer people using the rest area as a sexual pit stop, he said.
“It’s been cut down quite a bit. There was quite a bit of activity out there at one time but it’s quieted down,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the MDOT changes. It should deter the sexual activity in the southern part (of the rest area).”
Melki insists he has nothing against gay people and it was only after he started receiving phone calls complaining about “guy on guy sex” in the rest area — averaging about two or three calls a year — that he began considering having undercover stings. A Web site, he noted, advertised it as a place for gay men to have sex. But the breaking point, he noted, came when a father called and reported that a man had started masturbating in the middle of the bathroom in front of his two sons.
“I’ve got no beef with anyone…you just can’t do that kind of thing out in public,” Melki said.
“These are OK people – they just want somewhere to go is what most of them have told me. And I understand that. But I don’t want it taking place there.”
Kosofsky, however, said when he asked Melki for proof of citizens’ complaints, he couldn’t produce any. He called the stings “a solution in search of a problem.”
Melki said those who have been caught have merely been given tickets and released and nine times out of 10 they’ve pleaded down to disorderly conduct and been given a small fine.
“I don’t have any huge issue with that. I don’t tow the hard line with any of them,” Melki said. “I don’t want to pick on any particular crimes or individuals.”
That’s not how Kosofsky sees it. He said police officers never ticket men who have conservations about having sex with women – only when they actually arrange payment for sex, such as was the case in the most recent sole ticket in Clayton Township. And officers are well aware those caught seeking gay sex are usually so embarrassed they are willing to plead down and pay the fine, he added.
“Anything that can be done to reduce criminal behavior is welcomed,” Kosofsky said. “But we are completely against stings because they never work and they frequently lead to entrapment.”
And as far as Melki’s pledge to end the stings if the rest area improvements warrant it?
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Kosofsky said.