Calif. Police Department Responds to Undercover Decoy Controversy
The Long Beach Police Department remains under fire for allegedly using undercover decoys to entrap gay men in public restrooms, but Sgt. Rico Fernandez, Cdrs. Laura Farinella and Cindy Renaud and Lt. Rudy Komisza recently sat down with EDGE to discuss the controversy.
EDGE: How many have you have worked directly in undercover lewd conduct sting operations? Can you walk me through one of these operations?
Renaud: As a police department, all of us are responsible for enforcing Penal Code laws and taking action against illegal activity. Also, it isn’t a "sting" operation; lewd conduct is illegal activity that takes place and it’s very clearly defined under the Penal Code section 647(a). As far as the intricacies of how an undercover officer works in that environment, that is information that I’m sure you can understand to protect the officers and investigation, we do not give out details of.
EDGE:What kinds of citizen complaints prompt these investigations?
Renaud: We receive complaints about a variety of things. I think specifically for what you’re talking about in this interview, we get complaints about sex acts taking place in public. They’ll be directed at specific locations and we will go to those areas to see if that activity is happening.
EDGE: Are most complaints about acts between men and men? Do you receive complaints about public sex between heterosexuals?
Komisza: We get a variety of complaints.
Farinella: When we get a complaint in the community about men-on-men sex in restrooms, Vice will handle it. And then as far as the Chief’s Gay and Lesbian Advisory Group and Community Contact and Community Partnership, we’ll work with the Gay and Lesbian Center in our city about public education, about how to get the word out to men in the gay community who might be feeling that that’s an activity they want to partake in. So it’s not just enforcement only, we try to have a dialogue with the community.
Renaud: I can remember getting a complaint from a gentleman about a heterosexual couple who were constantly in front of his house having sex in their car. Just recently, we released a public information bulletin on a man who exposed himself to a 14-year-old girl in the area of Butler Elementary School. We are currently using a host of strategies to impact all of those, including undercover officers.
Fernandez: Also, several years ago, there was a series of robberies where a guy was targeting gay men doing online sex solicitation. People were soliciting sex online back and forth and at the time of the hookup, they would end up getting robbed and some were violent. We caught him.
EDGE: Are the arrests in these cases predominantly male or female?
Komisza: I would say they are predominantly male; however, we find that many of these people are married. Many of these people have kids, so we do not get into the sexual orientation.
Farinella: I guess you can’t make the assumption that because two men are engaging in restroom sex, that they’re both gay. And that’s not a question I believe investigators would even ask. That’s irrelevant.
Fernandez: For the most part, when you get complaints about that type of activity in restrooms and in parks and beaches, you don’t see a lot of complaints about women; it’s just a behavior that is not predominant in women. If the complaint’s not there, there’s no issue to resolve. Generally, the sex-related activity that involves women is prostitution.
EDGE: Is lewd conduct just sex in public, or does it have to be offensive to the other party, which in these cases would be the decoy, as defined in Pryor vs. Municipal Court?
Renaud: That is a question that is best answered by the city prosecutor or perhaps our city attorney, not something that we should comment on here. That’s a legal interpretation. Attorneys have every right to their interpretations, but as a police department we’re using the penal code.
EDGE: So you just enforce it as sex in pubic?
Renaud: Yes, sex and lewd acts in public.
Komisza: And/or open to public view.
EDGE: Has the Gay and Lesbian Advisory Committee brought the case of Pryor vs. Municipal Court to the police department?
Farinella: Yes, many years ago, absolutely.
EDGE: Since it has been so long, has it been talked about or taught less?
Farinella: Taught less? No, because it is one of those cyclical trainings and constant discussions. I meet with my advisory group quarterly, we march in Gay Pride together, we organize a yearly town hall meeting; it’s a constant communication. We’ve received more constituent complaints regarding restroom sex between men recently and we need to have another town hall meeting.
EDGE: Several men arrested for lewd conduct in restrooms on the beach allege that officers have intimidated or harassed them and told them to stay off the beach. Have you received complaints about that?
Renaud: I have not heard any complaints personally.
EDGE: How do you respond to criticism and allegations of discrimination?
Renaud: Everybody is going to have a perception of something and we fully understand that. If a citizen feels they have been discriminated against or harassed in some way, there’s a very open vehicle to approach the police department through our internal affairs process. I don’t particularly feel that I would need to respond right now to any of those complaints.
I know what you’re trying to get to and I’m not trying to side step it, but it’s a very subjective question with a lot of "what ifs" and a lot of "If somebody came to you with this..." and "If somebody said that..." If a citizen felt that way, then they should come to the police department and as I said, there is a complaint process they can go through.
EDGE How does the department respond to complaints made through the Gay and Lesbian Center?
Farinella: Usually if the Gay and Lesbian Center gets any kind of complaints, they have a hate crime hotline and someone on our advisory group listens to those and they’ll talk to me and our human dignity coordinator. We take it really seriously. When you become a cop in Long Beach, it’s pounded into you from day one in the academy that we’re the most diverse city in the nation. It’s a very multicultural city and we expect you to be open to that diversity. We provide diversity training in the academy, we have hate crime detectives and a human dignity coordinator to support hate crime victims. I think our outreach for our community, not just gay and lesbian, but across the board, is wonderful.
Someone recently threw potted plants through both [gay bar] Ripples and the Gay and Lesbian Center. That suspect has been arrested, is in custody and has been charged with a hate crime enhancement; so we’re all over it and I don’t know what else to say because I feel like we’re on top of it, I feel like we’re open and transparent and it’s not like it’s this bad thing to be gay in our organization. Officers are out, I’m out and I work directly for the chief of police. It’s not like that.
EDGE: Can you see how men arrested for restroom sex might be too intimidated or embarrassed to file a complaint?
Farinella: That might be, but each person’s responsible for their own actions. Regardless of how hurtful or embarrassing it is, you’re responsible for your own actions.
Fernandez: Even anonymous complaints get investigated, so if they don’t step forward to voice their thoughts or their feelings, there really isn’t much for us to do with it. They’ve got to bring the problem to us so that we can help them solve it.