The Ottawa police have a message for citizens looking to shack up in Ottawa’s parks this summer: clean up after yourselves.
The OPS began devoting more attention to the issue of park sex last year after a mother and daughter found condoms in a city park.
“We have to keep in mind that others are accessing the same park at different hours,” says staff sergeant John Medeiros, OPS Diversity and Race Relations officer.
Medeiros says the park sex issue has come up “from time to time” since the creation of the Police Liaison Committee to the gay community in 1991. The Ottawa police “respond to calls for service” Medeiros says, and address the issue of park sex on a case-by-case basis when complaints are filed.
Medeiros points out that some of Ottawa’s biggest parks are under the jurisdiction of NCC conservation officers rather than Ottawa cops. These parks include Gatineau Park, Major’s Hill Park, Commissioners Park and the Green Belt in Ottawa South.
“For the NCC, it is their park,” Medeiros said. “To have the Ottawa police putting cruisers out there would be very unlikely.”
The NCC has been less sympathetic to homo canoodlers.
NCC spokeswoman Kathryn Keyes says park sex “is a problem where we do have complaints with a number of occurrences.
“Regardless of whether [park sex] is gay or heterosexual, it can be disturbing to those who come upon it,” says Keyes. “Our officers patrol our space and are there to deter any inappropriate behaviour.”
NCC conservation officers have the power to slap couples engaged in park sex with a $100 fine and a ticket for “behaving in an offensive manner.”
Penalties levied by the Ottawa police for public sex in their jurisdiction can range from a warning to criminal charges.
Gay men have a proud history of nookie in the bushes. Once, casual gay sex was a common sight on the banks of the Ottawa River. In the ’70s, Major’s Hill Park was a hot and heavy cruising ground, although that activity gradually moved away from the downtown parks. The many secluded culverts continue to make Meech Lake an unofficial gay sex destination. In 2006, two gay men were fined for holding hands in Strathcona Park after 11pm.
Queer rights advocate Jeremy Dias of Jer’s Vision wishes the police took a different approach.
“We recognize it’s illegal,” he says, “but do we slap everyone with a fine, or do we approach them nicely and say, ‘You have to take it somewhere else?’ Both approaches have the same result.”
“The police are nice to us at the liaison committee, but we have to see these effects in the general community of officers,” says Dias. “A dialogue has to be created.”
Medeiros believes a dialogue is being created. The police service is “making inroads among frontline officers” during training days to address park sex.
“We recognize this is important to the GLBT community,” he says. “People don’t always conform to the same set of rules; even officers do things that are different because of their culture.”
Medeiros has also taken steps to engage the NCC, such as inviting officers to OPS liaison committee meetings and meeting with officers to discuss the issue specifically. The NCC, he says, has recognized that “previous approaches,” such as cutting down foliage to discourage behind-the-bush encounters — were merely driving horny couples elsewhere.
“If you shut it down, people use another area, and people do need a location,” says Medeiros. Now the Commission has put up more trash cans in parks to cut down on the debris couples leave behind.
“It’s not just about sex in parks, it’s about gay people having safe places to go for public displays of affection,” says Dias. “The police have to recognize that.”
Keyes and Medeiros acknowledge that charges of public sex could be harmful to those not open about their sexuality.
“Some of the people cruising a park could be married men, and these [allegations] could be devastating to them,” says Medeiros. Keyes says that because of the sensitivity of the issue, tickets issued for public indecency “do not disclose what the activity was, only what regulation was broken.”
The tickets say ‘Section 18 violation’, Section 18 being an NCC bylaw prohibiting “blasphemous or indecent language, or behav[iour] in an offensive manner” on NCC property.
“The Ottawa Police Service has done a lot of good things, but we need to keep the momentum going,” says Dias. “We need to [be] talking to police officers and saying why this is a problem.”
For the present, the police are urging couples to pick up after themselves. “It’s just like kids who are drinking in the park and leaving bottles,” says Medeiros. “I’m concerned that people could leave litter behind, and there is a perception of needles, even if needles are not really there.” He wishes couples could “be more cognizant and not leave debris” when using the park.
“We’re concerned about safety, including the safety of those using the park,” he says.