When Marcus McCann saw that the Toronto Police Service was conducting undercover stings to go after men having sex in Marie Curtis Park in Etobicoke, he sent out an email to a group of Ontario lawyers.
By the next day, 10 lawyers had offered to provide free legal services to anyone caught up in the sting.
“The sense from those lawyers was that the Toronto police reaction was out of all proportion to those complaints, especially the use of an undercover sting operation,” McCann says. “It certainly has the whiff of homophobia.”
Toronto police revealed last week that they had charged 72 people — the vast majority of them men — with 89 charges, over a six-week-long undercover sting aimed at curbing sexual behaviour in Marie Curtis Park. They called the operation Project Marie.
McCann says any of the men charged can contact him directly and he will put them in touch with a lawyer. In the meantime, they should make sure they’re not missing any deadlines or court appearance dates, he says.
“We know from the history of these kinds of charges that they often evaporate under their own weight over time,” he notes. Crown prosecutors will often withdraw charges, police officers won’t show up to court dates or people will be allowed to plead down to lesser offences that don’t have a sexual element. And the few men who do end up going to trial are often vindicated, he says.
“So it may seem like a daunting task right now, but at the very least, these folks should talk to a legal professional about it,” McCann says.
McCann says that Toronto police have a good model to deal with these kinds of complaints already. He points to how police tackled complaints of over-drinking in Trinity Bellwoods park last summer, where police conducted a public education campaign and only had uniformed officers handing out tickets.
“There was no undercover sting,” McCann says. “So I am left to wonder why that was appropriate in Trinity Bellwoods, but wouldn’t have been an appropriate response in Marie Curtis.”
And despite the relatively minor nature of most of the bylaw charges, the consequences for people caught up in similar stings can be severe. This includes outing men, which in the past had led to men getting fired from their jobs, or worse. In some scenarios, it’s led to suicide attempts.
“The gay community has, for years, been telling police forces across the country, including in Toronto, that they have to consider that before they decide to engage in ticketing and charging in these kinds of cases,” McCann says. “And it appears that it’s fallen on deaf ears.”