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Toronto police regret lack of LGBT outreach before undercover park sting

Police defend Project Marie but say more consultation should've been done

Community members talked to police at Marie Curtis Park on Nov 19, 2016, just over a week after police announced charges in Project Marie. Credit: Nick Lachance/ Xtra

Toronto police are expressing regrets over how they handled Project Marie, an undercover operation that targeted men having sex with men in an Etobicoke park last fall.

Meaghan Gray, a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, tells Xtra that the LGBT liaison officer and representatives of the LGBT community should have been consulted before the operation was executed in November 2016.

“If we had taken the opportunity to reach out to those groups in advance and to some of our LGBT community partners, then I think we could have perhaps done a more robust and sensitive outreach strategy,” she says.

Project Marie was six-week operation that saw 75 men and two women charged with bylaw offences and one man charged with a criminal offence. The operation was criticized by many members of the LGBT community who said it was unfairly targeted towards gay and bisexual men.

Male undercover officers were deployed in the park and laid charges primarily for lewd behaviour, which covers a variety of behaviour, from having sex in public to soliciting someone for sex in the park.

LGBT activists have argued that this type of policing stigmatizes gay and bisexual men and can have serious effects on the mental health of people who are ticketed.

“Some of the concerns that were raised about the effects that that type of enforcement has on particularly gay men or men who have sex with men, then we could have perhaps done our outreach in a different way,” Gray says.

However Gray says that Toronto police were responding to legitimate complaints of other park users and weren’t wrong in enforcing these bylaws.

“I think that as a police service, we still have an obligation to make sure that those park spaces are addressing those complaints and are free from any unlawful activity that may be taking place,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that the outreach we do in advance of those enforcement initiatives can’t be done with various sensitivities in mind.”

She stresses that Toronto police believe that they weren’t specifically targeting the LGBT community, but were instead going after illegal behaviour.

Marcus McCann, who alongside other lawyers has been representing people who were charged during Project Marie, told the Toronto Star and CBC that everyone who reached out to them and challenged their tickets had the charges dropped. They were in contact with over a dozen men.

McCann declined to speak to Xtra for this story.

Constable Kevin Ward, who led Project Marie, is facing professional misconduct charges related to an allegedly inappropriate relationship with a member of a student group. According to Metro News, he is also accused of making inappropriate comments and gestures and sharing police information with students.