Cops target gay men in Kent County parks

By BTL Staff and AP Wire

GRAND RAPIDS - Activists in western Michigan say sheriff's deputies have been unfairly targeting gay men in Kent County parks by striking up conversations with them while working undercover. Thirty-three men were arrested in the parks in 2010 under Michigan's soliciting law but many simply were talking or holding hands, critics told county commissioners Dec. 13.

"In these cases, it's the officers who are making the approaches. It's the officers who are doing the accosting and soliciting," said Miriam Aukerman of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Grand Rapids Press (http://bit.ly/vnjrrU) reports that Sheriff Larry Stelma defended his deputies and said they're simply trying to keep parks safe.

"This is sensationalizing and a distortion of what's happening," Stelma said. "We do not arrest anybody, male or female, for holding hands."

Aukerman said in half the reports she examined law officers initiated the contact with those they later arrested. She noted that the practice of using undercover cops in search of gay men seeking companionship has a long history.

Michigan law makes it illegal for someone to use a public place to invite another to commit a "lewd or immoral act." The statute states: "A person 16 years of age or older who accosts, solicits, or invites another person in a public place or in or from a building or vehicle, by word, gesture, or any other means, to commit prostitution or to do any other lewd or immoral act is guilty of a crime."

"If you look at the exact language of the statute, you could apply it to what happens in bars and restaurants in Kent County on any Friday or Saturday night," Aukerman said. "We have concerns about laws that limit the behavior of consenting adults."

She said there's nothing illegal about flirting.

Kent County attorney Dan Ophoff said changes in how deputies deal with such situations are already in the works, although authorities believe past arrests complied with the law. He said some cases were dropped before getting to court.

Some commissioners wanted to know why no men stepped forward to talk about their treatment.

"These are just devastating experiences for these men," said Collette Seguin Beighley, a member of Equality Michigan and director of Grand Valley State University's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center, "Many of them are closeted and the consequences are so huge, the cost of having their cars impounded and the risk of being on the sex offender list. I know men who had hoped to be (at the meeting) but said, `If they're targeting gay men, I'm not going to give my name and address."'

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