Tuesday, August 10, 1999
Police make secret deal with gay bars
Toronto officers told to ignore graphic sex acts
The Toronto Police senior command has made a secret deal with owners of gay bars that its officers will turn a blind eye to arguably illicit sex activity so long as it remains behind closed doors.
And the agreement is apparently firm enough that Crown lawyers believe it might give anyone charged with sex offences in a gay bar a possible defence and preclude any chance of conviction, the National Post has learned.
The controversial arrangement has come to light in the wake of a sheaf of arrests made earlier this summer at one of the bars, the Bijou, which bills itself as "Canada's only hard-core porn bar", and in the panic those arrests have unleashed within the force and the gay community both.
It has also prompted an internal police debate about what constitutes "community policing" and whether that should mean, as one of the senior officers defending the deal puts it, that a "community (such as the gay community) decides how it wants to be policed" and that the tone of law enforcement should flow from that starting point.
In the five weeks since the charges were laid, as segments of the city's well-organized gay community rallied to defend itself from what is perceived as a renewed attack upon private consensual sex, there has been a series of urgent meetings as senior officers have scrambled to have the charges dropped.
On three of five visits made to the Bijou between June 13 and July 1 this year, one of two plainclothes squads operating out of the downtown 52 Division tasked with policing the so-called "gay ghetto" in the city centre laid a raft of liquor licence charges against the bar and 19 criminal code charges, all but one of them alleging indecent acts.
The Bijou is best known for its "slurp ramp," as flyers advertising it in recent years have boasted.
This is the term for what happens in a doorless large room on a stage, on which is erected a fence of plywood punched with round holes, where on a busy night, customers line up for the chance to put their penises in the holes and receive anonymous oral sex.
Pictures taken at the bar apparently show the walls slippery with ejaculate, the floor littered with condoms.
The plainclothes officers first went to the bar, sources say, as part of a routine inspection to check if liquor laws were being enforced.
But when their initial low-key approach to speak to the Bijou owner got no response, and when the squad was repeatedly greeted by the sight of men masturbating openly at tables, one or two with their penises in the "slurp ramp" holes receiving oral sex, and, allegedly, though no charges were laid in connection with this incident because the participants fled, at least one couple having anal sex, they began laying indecent act charges.
These frontline officers were unaware, sources say, of any special agreement brokered by their superiors under which they shouldn't charge patrons criminally if they were having sex in public.
They have since learned better.
Since then, in a quiet way typical of a police department dealing with a public relations disaster involving a sophisticated and media-savvy community, all hell has broken loose.
In short order, Post sources say, the detective in charge of the squad was called at home, where he was on holidays, and asked to withdraw the charges by his boss, Staff-Inspector Dan Hutt; other members of the squad apparently have been urged to use their "discretion" and not lay any such charges against patrons of gay bars in future. And the Toronto Police Association the police union has received complaints from squad members who fear for their careers and who are outraged by the special deal.
The Post has learned that after squad boss Det. Dave Wilson refused to drop the charges, his unit commander, Superintendent Aiden Maher, in an unusual if not unprecedented move, called on Toronto's senior Crown attorney, Paul Culver, last week to formally ask him to withdraw them.
Supt. Maher is on vacation and was unavailable for comment yesterday, but Mr. Culver confirmed the meeting and the request, and said he hasn't yet decided what to do.
But the Post has learned that the criminal charges may well be dropped because the existence of the deal would offer the charged patrons an out, and make virtually impossible a prosecution which was already difficult because of the changing legal definitions of what constitutes a "public" place.
The deal was apparently struck after a 1996 police raid by the force's morality squad on another gay bar.
Downtown city councillor Kyle Rae, an openly gay municipal politician who often speaks for the gay community, yesterday remembered discussions involving the then-boss of 52 Division, Superintendent Jim Parkin.
Mr. Rae noted that while the gay community is itself divided on the issue of public sex, it carries a real history because of the way, especially years ago, that gay men were closeted. Anonymous sex, in such places as parks and bathhouses and now bars, was the traditional only resort for those too fearful to live as open homosexuals.
But Supt. Parkin, now in charge of 31 Division, while acknowledging yesterday that while he certainly told his officers "not to look for trouble" in gay bars and that it was essentially agreed the police wouldn't press charges for sex acts that were conducted in private areas of a bar, they made no such promise if the acts were conducted in public areas.
"Absolutely not," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. "I wouldn't do that (make that promise)."
But when Supt. Parkin left 52 Division about a year ago, the agreement apparently began to be interpreted more broadly.
Yesterday, St.-Insp. Hutt defended both the request to have the criminal charges against the patrons dropped and the larger policy which calls for officers to look the other way which he said has been in existence for years.
"It's worked well," St.-Insp. Hutt told the Post, "and I still think it's a pretty fair deal."
St.-Insp. Hutt agreed that the sex acts for which the Bijou patrons were charged were conducted in public areas of the bar and thus were arguably against the law and defended his squad's visits to the club and their right to enforce liquor laws, but said the officers who laid the criminal charges took the wrong approach.
"We charge the owners of the clubs (under liquor licensing provisions)," he said. "We don't prosecute the patrons (criminally). We charge bar owners; they're the ones making money on it." Bar enforcement, he said, is a question of which tool to use the liquor licence laws, violation of which can see a bar lose its license, or the Criminal Code, which St.- Insp. Hutt said accomplishes little.
St.-Insp. Hutt, who said he didn't know what "a slurp ramp" was, told the Post this sort of policing, where a segment of the population decides "how they want to be policed," is community policing at its best.
He said that the gay community "views certain acts and behavior differently than the rest of the community", and that police should respond to that.
But other senior officers say that is "stretching" and arguably distorting the definition of community policing, and question whether it was proper for Supt. Maher to ask the Crown attorney to drop the criminal charges.
Sources say the plainclothes officers themselves are furious at the actions of St.-Insp. Hutt and Supt. Maher, and that they see this as a "thin edge of the wedge." The officers say heterosexual bars offering equivalent sex acts would be quickly raided.
Other officers are more worried at the erosion of the line separating police and their political masters.
"It's like the separation between church and state," one said. "It's the wrong message, to have the unit commander going down to pull strings, or that these guys (patrons) are untouchable. There should be one law for everybody. If you don't like the law, change it, but there shouldn't be any special deals."
Created: August 12, 1999
Last modified: January 31, 2001
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