Controversy Over Suburban L.A. Restroom Sting Continues to Rage
A Southern California police department and media outlets came under fire last week for publishing the mugshots, names and birth dates of 18 men arrested in a lewd conduct sweep.
Six undercover operations that the Manhattan Beach Police Department conducted at a Marine Avenue restroom in March netted the 18 men on misdemeanor charges ranging from soliciting lewd conduct to indecent exposure, using a peephole in a restroom and resisting arrest. The restroom had become a popular cruising spot.
Several of the men claim they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Manhattan Beach Police Department released all of their names and mugshots to the media on April 3.
KCBS/KCAL was the first major network to publish the mugshots that evening, prompting the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center to call for their immediate removal.
"Naturally we don’t condone illegal activity of any kind, but these men haven’t been proven guilty and historically, charges such as those leveled against them have involved police entrapment," said Darrel Cummings, the Center’s chief of staff. "Publishing their photos serves no purpose other than to humiliate and destroy their lives."
By the following day, the mugshots had been plastered across the net after several additional media outlets published them.
CBS/KCAL spokesman Mike Nelson told EDGE that the station did not publish the mug shots because of the men’s sexual orientation.
"Like other stations in the market, we reported on a significant local news story regarding the arrest of a large number of individuals," he said. "Our coverage, like that of several other media outlets, included showing the official photos of those arrested, photographs that were provided by the Manhattan Beach Police Department."
Nelson further defended CBS/KCAL’s decision to publish the mugshots.
"This reporting is consistent with our long-held journalistic standards by which we provide the public with information and photos from law enforcement agencies about arrested individuals on a regular basis without regard to their gender, race or sexual orientation," he said.
Jim Key, chief public affairs officer at the Center, questioned the station’s consistency in including mugshots.
"In a story last year about 11 men arrested in a prostitution sex sting, no names or photos were published," he said. "In a subsequent story about 16 men arrested in a prostitution sting, no names or photos were published. And in a story about three Manhattan Beach police officers fired for covering up a hit-and-run, there were no photos of the officers. Why was the undercover sting at a public bathroom treated differently-and not just by KCBS/KCAL, as we’ve learned, but many other news stations and publications?"
The Manhattan Beach Police Department could not be reached for comment as of deadline.
Two of the men arrested have hired Bruce Nickerson, a leading California gay rights attorney who has secured acquittals for thousands of men who have been arrested in similar lewd conduct cases.
Nickerson said two things make this one extraordinary: the publishing of mugshots, and the alleged behavior of the police.
"I think it’s absolutely outrageous," he said. "I have examined over 10,000 cases in a 30 year period and I have never seen such viciousness on the part of the media."
He said both of his clients gave accounts of the undercover cops allegedly peering over bathroom stalls and pretending to have phone conversations asking their boyfriends for sex.
"I have never seen police behavior as blatant as this," said Nickerson. "This takes the cake."
Nickerson ultimately plans to file a class-action lawsuit against the Manhattan Beach Police Department, something he’s done successfully in other counties across the state.
"The arrests are both invalid and discriminatory," he said, citing the 1979 case Pryor v. Municipal Court that redefined lewd conduct as committed in public view "If the actor knows or should know of the presence of persons who may be offended by his conduct."
If undercover decoys are sending out signals and encouraging the men, he argues, then the "knows or should know" element is not present and no crime is committed.
"It’s not like a prostitution arrest, where the cops can legitimately pretend to be a prostitute," he said.
As for the release of the mugshots, Nickerson hopes to get his clients damages.
Both Long Beach attorney Stephanie Loftin and West Hollywood Mayor John Duran, who also represent men arrested in restroom cruising operations, say the publishing of the mugshots is extremely unusual.
"We hear about it occasionally in outlying states, in conservative places or the Deep South. It really hasn’t happened in greater Los Angeles for a very long time," said Duran. "Usually mugshots are released when there is a serious or violent felon that’s involved for a serious or violent crime."
He said undercover operations like the one in Manhattan Beach were practiced more frequently in the 1970s and that the release of the mugshots is overkill.