Last week, undercover officers laid 89 charges against 72 people, mostly men, at Marie Curtis Park. Dressed to be unrecognized as police, they attended the park and engaged with the men there. In a city coping with increased opiate drug trafficking, a rise in shootings, and a spate of deadly pedestrian collisions, what crime was so significant as to get this level of attention? The answer is largely men having consensual sex with men.
I believe it is important not to detract from the concerns west end residents have about this park. Parks should be for everyone and there is understandable frustration around parents keeping their children from encountering sex in a public space. However, there is a long memory in the LGBTQ2S community regarding inappropriate entrapment and disproportionate use of force by police against it.
In 1981 Toronto's LGBTQ2S community faced one of its most painful moments with the Toronto Police-led bathhouse raids which ultimately resulted in 289 arrests of men. Their “crime” was that they were engaged in consensual sexual activity. In 2001, the Toronto Police raided Pussy Palace, a women’s bathhouse which again reminded us that this was a long-term struggle. During Pride Month this year, leadership within the Toronto Police Services could not quite bring themselves to acknowledge the devastating impact of those events and explicitly apologize for the lives ruined because of the bathhouse raids.
Toronto has its fair share of challenges. Regrettably, many are criminal and involve victims whose lives and dignity are put on the line. In the downtown and throughout the city, we have seen a massive increase in drug overdoses. This year has already seen more than twice the number of shootings as 2013. These are pressing issues that truly deserve the full attention and resources of our front-line police officers. So just how many criminal charges came out of this expensive, six-week-long operation at Marie Curtis Park? One.
For every other person, cumulatively charged with 88 offences, none were criminal. Most other charges were provincial offences or bylaw infractions related to sexual activity and trespassing. However, these charges will follow all those targeted and impact their private lives in ways we cannot presume. Who actually ordered the operation? What real and effective notice was afforded to those targeted that the police would act this way? Did the police ever consider the effect their operation would have on this targeted population? What is the real operation cost in dollars and missed opportunities elsewhere? These are the same questions asked after the 1981 and 2001 bathhouse raids. We did not get answers to these questions then and I suspect we will not get them now.
The Toronto Police Service has made some real progress in its relationship with the LGBTQ2S community. The 2016 debate over their participation in the Pride parade is just one example of their desire to do better and to keep connected. Intentional or not, it appears that there are still those who do not fully appreciate the concerns raised when police infiltrate and target members of the LGBTQ2S community.
Local residents are fully justified in making their parks a safe and welcoming place. A criminal charge involving a registered sex offender who exposed himself at a playground is rightly worrying and requires police attention. All other charges, however, were completely unrelated to this one individual’s actions, and involved consenting adults. I believe these provincial and bylaw offences should be immediately dropped. Pursuing the charges will only perpetuate the LGBTQ2S community’s distrust of the police.
Mayor Tory and City Council should reconvene the Community Advisory Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues to help inform how the City conducts its business and deploys its resources affecting this minority population. Police Chief Mark Saunders should personally review Project Marie and proactively discuss its impact at his LGBT Community Consultative Committee. Warning tickets and visible ongoing patrols of the uniformed community unit would have been a much better approach. Undercover operations should be used to target real criminal activity and violence across Toronto. There is a way forward to build better relations with the LGBTQ2S community and to ensure Toronto parks remain safe and welcoming spaces for all. Let’s meet, dialogue and do this work together.