In a little-noticed development, U.S. Park Police have made at least 26 arrests during the past year in Meridian Hill Park in D.C. of men seeking other men for a sexual encounter after they allegedly act in a way that violates the law, according to a Park Police spokesperson.
Sgt. Eduardo Delgado, a Park Police public information officer, told the Washington Blade the 26 arrests made in the park since Aug. 7, 2018 involve charges of one or a combination of Disorderly Conduct, Lewd Acts, Unlawful Entry, and Simple Assault (Sexual).
He said he couldn’t immediately determine if the arrests were made by plain clothes or uniformed officers, but said the arrests were prompted by complaints from the public about “lewd acts” in the park.
D.C. defense attorney John Albanes told the Blade that several of his fellow attorneys who represent clients arrested at Meridian Hill Park report that the men were arrested by undercover officers who pose as consenting prospective partners interested in a sexual tryst.
“I am on a D.C. Superior Court trial lawyers association listserv and recently several criminal defense attorneys on the email list have mentioned that they have had criminal cases involving essentially the same set of facts,” Albanes told the Blade in an email. “[U]ndercover plain-clothes Park Police officers entice men in Meridian Hill Park for purportedly consensual sexual activity and then proceed to arrest their targets for a crime (often misdemeanor sexual abuse),” according to Albanes.
“I find this pattern extremely disturbing and reminiscent of the Stonewall days when gay men were often the target of police discrimination. The tactics used in these cases just fly in the face of proper police work and should be exposed,” he said.
“The officers are posing as willing participants in a consensual encounter between adults,” Albanes said. “The target is deceived into thinking that what he is about to do is wanted. This raises serious doubts about whether the government can prove criminal intent.”
When asked about Albanes’ assessment of the Meridian Hill Park arrests, Delgado responded with a statement by email that did not address the claim by the defense lawyers that the arresting officers were “enticing” the arrested men into committing an illegal act.
“The U.S. Park Police receives complaints about lewd acts that occur within Meridian Hill,” Delgado said in his email. “As with any other complaint of illegal activity, we then take actions to stop it,” he said. “Plain clothes officers are just one method of enforcement sometimes used to deter, stop, and/or arrest violators within the parks.”
Albanes said he asked the defense lawyers representing some of the men arrested on sex-related charges at Meridian Hill Park to reach out to the Blade to talk about their cases, including whether prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office have moved the cases forward toward a trial or a possible plea bargain offer. He said some of the cases may also be prosecuted by the Office of the D.C. Attorney General, which handles some misdemeanor cases.
The Blade asked Albanes to inform the attorneys that it would continue its longstanding policy of not disclosing the names of those arrested in cases like this. However, none of the attorneys had contacted the Blade as of late Tuesday.
“While I am sorry to hear that, I am not surprised,” said Albanes. “I suspect the attorneys – in line with their ethical obligations – do not want to disclose client confidences without their informed consent,” he said, noting that many of the clients are most likely closeted gay men.
Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, has been known for at least 50 years as a cruising spot for mostly African-American gay men. In past years, men who go to the park to seek other men for sexual encounters have told the Washington Post and the Washington City Paper that the cruising often takes place late at night in secluded areas of the park covered by shrubs, bushes and trees.
Similar to other cruising locations in the city, the men interviewed by the Post and City Paper have said they sometimes invited the person they met at the park to their homes or another private location and did not engage in sex in the park.
LGBT activists have said the number of arrests of gay men in public places like parks appears to have declined dramatically in recent years due to the proliferation of online gay meet-up sites and apps like Grindr, in which a sexual tryst can be arranged quickly without the risk of outdoor cruising.
Gay D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Rob Hudson, in whose Ward 1 ANC 1B Meridian Hill Park is located, said he had not been aware of the arrests there of gay men until the Blade contacted him about the development. He said he would make inquires with D.C. police and would raise the issue with fellow ANC members.
D.C. police spokesperson Alaina Gertz said D.C. police respond to 911 emergency calls at Meridian Hill Park but notify U.S. Park Police about such a call because Park Police have official jurisdiction over the park, which is considered to be on federal land.
The 12-acre park includes fountains and a highly acclaimed landscaping design modeled off of Italian and French estates. Those who patronize the park say its reputation as a gay cruising place is overshadowed by its more widely known reputation as a cultural melting pot made up of a diverse population that hangs out in the park.
An August 2015 feature story about the park in the Washington Post says that in a changing and sometimes divided city, Meridian Hill Parks serves as a “gathering place for all of the District’s disparate tribes: black and white, rich and poor, young and old, immigrant and local, gay and straight, boring and bizarre.”