Watch: With Homophobic Tropes, Florida Sheriff Uses Park Sting Operation Against Gay Men for Political Gain

Friday October 16, 2020

Tampa Bay Times reported that a sting operation, called "Operation Park Cleanup," was conducted by Florida's Hillsborough Police Department in September and resulted in the arrests of 11 men whose photos and names were released to the public through news outlets and social media. The operation took place in Sun City Heritage Park, located in Ruskin, and in Sydney Dover Conservation Park, which is located in Dover.

Subsequently, it has been used by Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister for political purposes. Chronister, the Times reports, is up for re-election. "The vile acts by these men took place in a park, the same place where our children play," says Chronister in a series of comments on YouTube.

He continued to draw parallels to gay sex and pedophilia in subsequent quotes.

"Operation Park Cleanup was a proactive sting to keep these individuals out of the park away from people who appropriately utilize the park and, again, away from our children.

'These men made these parks their personal playground for their deviant behavior. It will not be tolerated."

But the "vile acts" didn't take place. Instead, the sweep appears to be another case of entrapment - in this case, for political gain.

"The parks and recreation department had received no recent complaints about such incidents in either of those parks," The Tampa Bay Times reported, posing the question: "Was the Sheriff's Office criminalizing gay sex?"

Those questioning "Operation Park Cleanup" wondered whether heterosexual people would have been dealt with in a similar manner.

"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," said Nadine Smith of Equality Florida.

But Sheriff's spokeswoman Crystal Clark defended the operation as a way of protecting children and said accusations that the sting was prejudiced against gay men 'are absurd, and quite frankly, offensive,' " the Tampa Bay Times reported.

The combination of reportage of the 11 mens' identities to news outlets and on social media left the men "exposed to public ridicule, harassment, even threats — and potentially outed to family, friends and coworkers," the article said.

Smith questioned the operation's timing, saying, "I can only assume it's an election year stunt," and said that the sting "reflects poorly on both Chronister's "judgment and his character."

Citing an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Jillian Snider, the article pointed out that the men "were arrested for agreeing to have sex that never happened," and went on to question whether the men who were arrested "would have sought sex in the first place had they not run into the undercover deputies."

Such law enforcement operations are not new in Florida, and neither is the controversy around them. In 2012, the South Florida Gay News reported on a sting operation by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department that used the so-called "bag a fag" tactics that were decried by attorney Russell Cormican of Fort Lauderdale.

"They approach, lure and entice guys who are sitting alone in their car, start a sexually charged conversation and then look for a way to arrest them," Cormican told the publication. "By going out and creating the crime, they're not fighting the problem. They're creating the entire incident from the beginning to end themselves."

Another lawyer, Rudy Serra, described as an "expert" on the "entrapment of gay men," told the SFGN that the statements issued by law enforcement at that time - which were echoed more recently by Sheriff Chronister's YouTube soundbites - "includes an indication of the very sort of anti-gay hysteria that often infuses these operations."

Serra noted that "Even in the shortest of statements they are careful to mention 'playgrounds.' In other words, the sheriff believes that gay men are a threat to children. Their statement exploits the most obnoxious, obsolete, and offensive anti-gay stereotype available."