LANSING – Undercover officers from the Lansing Police Department conducted an undercover sting operation in Lansing’s Fenner Aboretum and Nature Center on May 22. The operation resulted in the arrest of two men on charges of indecent exposure and the issuance of a warrant for a third suspect on a similar charge. Police have not released the arrest reports from the operation, nor have they released the names, ages or city locations of the two men who were arrested.
This is the first time Lansing Police have done an undercover operation targeting men who have sex with men in a public place since Chief Mark Alley took the helm in 2000. Alley said he was surprised there were concerns about the operation.
“The subjects exposed themselves in the park, and there were children present,” Alley said. In an attempt to stop the ongoing cruising, he said the department has sent in uniformed patrols to drive through the park. Those patrols found no illegal activity “but complaints continued to come forward.”
The park, according to the city Web site, is 130 acres and has four miles of trails weaving through several habitats. The park is used as an environmental education classroom.
Alley said he was not aware of the operation until after it had been conducted. He also denied the sting operation was directed at men who have sex with men, only at sexual behavior in the park.
And while Lansing Police officials are standing by the arrests, leaders in the gay community and elected officials are expressing concerns.
“It is abhorrent to me when a part of the community is targeted for arrest,” said Penny Gardner, president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights a Lansing area lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights organization. “I don’t like any entrapment methods.”
“It is disturbing that the police would set up a sting operation before any attempt at community outreach. A variety of avenues exist in Lansing to perform preventative measures before going in and setting up this operation,” said Alicia Skillman, executive director of the Triangle Foundation. “If a problem actually existed, and if there were actual concern for the park, why didn’t uniformed police go in and patrol the area before beginning profiling activities? It is a dire situation when police officers fail to work with the community to make the park a place for everyone to enjoy.”
Gardner said no one from the city, the police or from neighborhood groups contacted her or her organization before the sting operation took place. Officials at Triangle Foundation say they were not contacted by the city either.
“It wasn’t cruising that was a problem. It was gay cruising that was a problem,” said Gardner.
But it is not just gay leaders who are worried about the stings.
Lansing Mayor Virgil Bernero has directed City Attorney Brig Smith to review the arrests to make sure there was no entrapment.
“The biggest problem is we weren’t informed about the operation in advance,” said Randy Hannan, deputy chief of staff for Bernero. “We will have to look at that.”
Lansing Second Ward City Councilmember Sandy Allen, who also chairs the Council’s Public Safety Committee, said she, too, was concerned.
“I wish the police would have notified the gay community before hand,” Allen said.
She is also not happy she learned of the operation from a reporter. “I have told every department in the city to please keep me informed about things that happen in my ward so I don’t learn about them from a constituent,” Allen said.
Allen said she is going to put the sting operation on the next Public Safety Committee meeting agenda. She wants to know why the gay community was not notified, and she wants to know why since uniformed officers found no problem, a sting operation was performed at all.
The park has been a problem for public sex for years. In 2005, residents called on the city to clean it up, and Parks and Recreation Director Murdock Jemerson worked closely with the LGBT community to address concerns. In addition, police increased foot patrols, posted signs warning visitors to stay on the trails or be charged with violating a city ordinance, and installed video survelliance. Two years ago, Jemerson wrote a letter to LAHR asking the gay community to help keep the park free of public sex.
Jemerson said he only learned of the arrests after they occurred. “I was really unaware they had a sting operation,” Jemerson said. He declined further comment until he could investigate further.