HUFFINGTON POST
09/07/2007 01:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Craig Bust Leads to Debate Over Bathroom Stings

Even as it becomes increasingly clear that Idaho Sen. Larry Craig will resign following his arrest for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a Minneapolis airport bathroom, some critics are wondering whether decoy operations like the kind that ensnared the three-term GOP senator are an effective use of police resources.

Attorneys and civil liberties groups say they have long sought to dissuade law enforcement officials from using such tactics because they can unfairly target gay men, and often skate a fine line between policing and entrapment.

And while few believe that police should allow lewd behavior in parks and restrooms, critics also insist that there are more effective ways of deterring men from "cruising" or looking for sex in public places.

"The fundamental problem is that a sting isn't calculated to stop the activity," said Matt Coles, director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Are you trying to stop people from cruising, or are you trying to arrest a lot of people?"

Law enforcement agencies that use undercover stings are reluctant to discuss how many officers are assigned to such operations or how much money is spent.

A spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Airports Commission said the airport police -- who have arrested 41 people since May in public indecency cases - could not discuss resources devoted to bathroom stings because providing such information "could compromise their ability to perform their duties."

But attorneys say that many departments have stopped using decoys because of questions raised about fairness and police priorities.

In West Hollywood, Calif., a city with one of the nation's largest concentrations of gay men and lesbians, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department agreed to stop conducting undercover stings after complaints from residents and activists.

"You've got a better use of your time and police resources," said Mayor John J. Duran, who as an attorney has also represented numerous clients caught up in such stings.

Lt. Amelia Huffman, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Police Department - which does not patrol the airport - agreed.

"The cost benefit doesn't play out," Huffman said. "These are misdemeanor crimes, by and large. While they are certainly troubling, and we want to be responsive to complaints, investing a lot in decoy operations just doesn't make sense."

Many opposed to police stings say they raise questions about selective prosecution of gay men.

Duran said police departments usually deploy attractive male officers who have been trained to have men hit on them inside bathrooms and parks. The officers often participate in the rituals and gestures associated with cruising - such as looking suggestively at a suspect or rubbing one's crotch.

Such actions cause some to wonder whether sting operations are "honey traps" that can entice some men into flirting back.

"If you put an attractive female officer in a public place and she walked up suggestively to a straight man, the public would cry out 'that's not right!'" Duran said.

Craig was arrested in June after an undercover Minneapolis Airport Police sergeant said he observed the senator tapping his foot and waving his hand underneath a bathroom stall divider - signals which some officials say are common among men cruising for sex.

He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and interference with privacy. Craig has since said he will try to reverse his guilty pleas.

According to the arrest report, at no point did Craig expose himself to the undercover officer, and no words were exchanged.

A transcript of Craig's post-arrest interview reveals the sort of fuzzy line that police officers sometimes walk when pursuing these cases.

"You shouldn't be out to entrap people," Craig told Sgt. Dave Karsnia.

Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal, the gay and lesbian public advocacy law group, said that it is very difficult to prove entrapment because a defendant has to show that it was the undercover officer's idea to commit a crime, and it was something they were not ready and willing to do before the officer induced them.

"If the police leave a car with the keys in it and running, and the doors open, and someone gets in the car and steals it, that is not entrapment," Davidson said.

Nevertheless, he said there are much cheaper ways to prevent cruising in public areas.

"If they were only interested in deterring conduct they would put up signs that said "this bathroom is patrolled," Davidson said. "Most men engaging in this behavior are not interested in being walked in on."

Davidson said often these stings are often a way for police to increase their arrest statistics because men cruising for sex make for easy collars, they are usually not hardened criminals and they generally don't put up a fight.

In Atlanta, police realized they had a problem in their airport bathrooms earlier this year when plainclothes officers looking for luggage thieves stumbled upon a different sort of problem in the stalls.

Maj. Darryl Tolleson, who commands the Airport Precinct of the Atlanta Police Department, said his officers have arrested 46 people so far this year for public indecency. But he said that regular patrols of the bathrooms have kept the situation in check.

"At this point I haven't seen the need to stage an officer in there," Tolleson said.

And although he acknowledged that some might say that police at airports should focus on homeland security rather than toe-tapping in restroom stalls, Tolleson said preventing public indecency was equally important.

"All crime is crime at the airport," he said.

--Max Follmer is a Staff Writer at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at max@huffingtonpost.com