EBRSO: Park arrests needed different approach

The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office said Sunday it should have taken a different approach with a task force that made at least a dozen arrests since 2011 using a struck-down law to arrest men at parish parks who discussed or agreed to have consensual sex with undercover agents.

But Metro Councilman John Delgado sent an email to the Sheriff’s Office saying Sheriff Sid Gautreaux owes an apology to the men arrested and the entire parish.

The Sheriff’s Office issued a formal statement following an article in Sunday’s Advocate about operations by the Sheriff’s Office’s Special Community Anti-Crime Team, which also conducts prostitution stings and Internet operations targeting child predators.

“The Sheriff’s Office has not, nor will it ever, set out with the intent to target or embarrass any part of our law-abiding community,” the Sheriff’s Office statement says.

“We will consult with others in the legislative and judicial branches to see what can be done to remove this law from the criminal code that each deputy receives and to also find alternative ways to deter sexual and lewd activity from our parks,” the statement says.

Delgado’s email says the Sheriff’s Office’s Sunday statement sensationalizes the matter by using terms like “lewd conduct” and “public masturbation” and suggesting that children were present during the arrests.

“The newspaper article makes it quite clear that nothing of the sort occurred in these 12 arrests,” Delgado says. “These men were arrested even though they were innocent of any crime.”

Delgado said the deputies’ actions are violations of the civil rights of these men under the 5th and 14th amendments. He said the Sheriff’s Office cannot claim it was unaware of the change in the law.

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” he said. “Doesn’t your office tell people that all the time?”

Delgado said he will file public records requests Monday to determine when the District Attorney’s Office informed the Sheriff’s Office that the men targeted had committed no crime.

Delgado, in a phone interview Sunday, said the arrests by the Sheriff’s Office task force are “despicable, offensive, hateful, bigoted.”

“I can’t say any stronger words in condemnation of their action,” Delgado said.

Delgado also said it’s “beyond insulting” that the sheriff would say he “didn’t know it was against the law.”

“Does he know that slavery is no longer around?” Delgado asked rhetorically. “Does he know that we have cars and no longer horse and buggies?”

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks, when asked about Delgado’s email, deferred to the official statement, saying the office has no record of being informed that the District Attorney’s Office would not pursue charges in the cases.

When asked whether Gautreaux will make a public apology, Hicks said the Sheriff’s Office apologizes that “the way these investigations were handled made it appear that we were targeting a segment of society.”

“The Sheriff’s Office also apologizes to anyone that was unintentionally harmed or offended by the actions of our investigations that were only an effort to keep the parks safe,” she said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III has said his office refused to prosecute the cases because his assistants found no crime had occurred.

Advocates for civil rights and the LGBT community also have expressed outrage at the task force, saying it unfairly targeted gay men who were humiliated by their arrests.

The Capital City Alliance, a Baton Rouge-based LGBT advocacy group, posted a petition on the website Change.org on Sunday calling for the Sheriff’s Office to stop targeting gay men.

The petition now includes a response from Sheriff’s Office saying the law enforcement agency will work with the state legislature to have the law removed from the books.

Bruce Parker, coalition manager for Equality Louisiana, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, said his group was in contact with the Sheriff’s Office throughout Sunday.

“They’ve been very eager to work with us today,” he said.

Parker said the Sheriff’s Office has agreed to meet with Equality Louisiana officials to work on ways for deputies to interact better with LGBT residents.

Parker said it’s his understanding that Gautreaux himself will meet with the advocacy group.

Parker also said his organization will hold Gautreaux accountable on his office’s pledge to have the law changed.

Capital City Alliance and Equality Louisiana also intends to appoint an LGBT liaison to the Sheriff’s Office to better relations in the LGBT community.

The Sheriff’s Office maintains the deputies were acting in good faith by using a statute that is still on the books in Louisiana’s criminal code. The park operations, conducted at BREC’s request, “were an attempt to deter or stop lewd activity occurring in the park near children,” the Sheriff’s Office statement says.

“When we receive reports of public masturbation, sex and other lewd activity in a park where children are playing, we must take these concerns seriously,” the statement says. “Our intent was honorable. Our approach, however, is something we must evaluate and change.”

In addition, deputies presented sworn affidavits of probable cause for judges to review. In the cases, the judges set bond, showing that there was probable cause for an arrest, the Sheriff’s Office said.

“To our knowledge, the Sheriff’s office was never contacted or told that the law was not enforceable or prosecutable,” the statement says.

The Advocate received a written statement from the Sheriff’s Office on Friday about the story printed Sunday, saying it was inaccurate to say that deputies misapplied the law and that it was still on the books.

Louisiana’s crime against nature statute is still used today in part to criminalize bestiality, as evidenced in 2010 when local authorities charged a man seen trying to have sex with a dog.

The statute also includes language banning “the unnatural carnal copulation by a human being with another of the same sex or opposite sex.”

That provision, however, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court a decade ago.

Then-Louisiana Attorney General Richard Ieyoub said at the time that the state’s anti-sodomy law would be unenforceable except for provisions banning sodomy for compensation and sex with animals.

The law was amended in 2010 to prohibit “unnatural carnal copulation” for compensation.

Moore said Sunday he still believes the deputies’ arrests were made in good faith and just were unaware of the changes in the law.

Moore has said he will meet with the Sheriff’s Office to discuss the Supreme Court ruling.

“I believe now everyone clearly understands the implication of the United States Supreme Court decision,” Moore said.