3 min

The Belleville un-Intelligencer

On Mar 30, while most media in the western world were reporting on the death of the Queen Mother and the escalating conflict in the Middle East, the Belleville Intelligencer saw fit to push those stories to the second page.

“Sting Nabs Six Men At Zwicks: Charges Of Indecent Sexual Acts” shouted its front-page headline to a story accompanied by a colour photo of a children’s play area. From that day on, coverage of the Belleville undercover police operation – which eventually boasted nine arrests – had all the makings of a media-driven moral panic.

It began with what in other venues is increasingly considered a controversial decision. Belleville police released to the media the names and ages of the arrested men. Before those arrested had even made an initial appearance before a judge and well before they’d had an opportunity to defend themselves in court, the Belleville Intelligencer had made public the names, ages and city of residence of the arrested men.

The actions of the Belleville police and press contravene a growing if implicit consensus among most media against publishing the names of men picked up on such charges. This new media ethos is related to an evolving sensitivity toward the potentially devastating consequences of printing names, from loss of livelihood and reputation to suicide, for charges that are not seen as very serious.

While the Intelligencer had no apparent qualms about publicizing the names of those arrested, it did choose to protect the anonymity of some. One reporter noted that a police officer “spoke to the Intelligencer on condition of anonymity.” It’s an odd policy for a newspaper to print the names of accused men – effectively no longer innocent until proven guilty – but grant anonymity to a police officer who is presumably accountable to the public.

Throughout the media coverage of the Belleville incident, there has been a relentless drive to link the alleged sexual activities to children. Initial radio reports of the park busts suggested the men were masturbating in their cars while looking at kiddie porn. Police later admitted that, in fact, “Some of the men were holding pictures of other men, not of young boys.”

Although no children have been involved, almost every one of the many newspaper reports underscore that the parking lot used by the men is adjacent to a children’s playground. Again, police have had to concede that in all but perhaps one of the cases, “There were no children present [in the playground] at the time of the arrest.”

Still, the repeated references to a children’s playground serves its purpose: To whip up anxiety over children’s safety by linking them to the men who frequent what has been referred to as Belleville’s “Pervert Park.”

Press releases issued by the Belleville police (and archived on their website) reveal some telling disparities in their handling of incidents of public indecency. Last summer, for instance, a 21-year-old man exposed himself before a lobby camera in an apartment building. Police were called and the man “was cautioned regarding committing an indecent act and sent on his way.” The title given to the incident by police in their press release? “Say Cheese!”

The jocular treatment of this and other indecency cases contrasts sharply with the tone of moral outrage adopted by the police when commenting in the press on their recent action against men at Zwicks Park.

“These people are ruining the city parks for others… and quite frankly, we’re not going to stand for it,” one inspector told the Intelligencer.

The police media releases also beg the question of why these men were not simply cautioned and sent on their way, as has happened in numerous other indecency cases. On location in a CKWS TV interview with Belleville police about their undercover operation at Zwicks Park, the reporter noticed a nearby parked car, complete with fogged-up windows.

Caught in the act by police post-interview was a heterosexual couple. The CKWS reporter wrapped up her story by noting that, “The young couple involved in this steamy incident was let off with a warning.”

Who is really being served by these arrests? First, sustained media attention puts a spotlight on a perceived social problem and allows the police to appear to be doing something about it. But more than that, repetitive media accounts foster a climate in which police can justify a need for increased policing and resources.

Only days after the initial reports, the commander of the Prince Edward County OPP advised that while his detachment has not received any complaints, “We will be increasing our patrols.” An inspector with the Quinte West police reasoned that, “If it’s happening there [in Belleville] then it most certainly is happening somewhere else.”

Although no complaints had been filed with his department either, “officers have spent extra time patrolling. They haven’t identified any people doing criminal activities in the park,” he admits, but adds, “We have made our presence known.”