Last edited: February 14, 2005

Park Law Entraps Gays, Critics Say

City Council Debates Renewal of Ordinance

Cincinnati Post, September 21, 1999

By Kevin Osborne, Post staff reporter

In the two years since a controversial Cincinnati law that bans people convicted of certain sexual activities from public parks was enacted, arrests at the parks have skyrocketed.

Critics say the increase indicates undercover police are targeting and entrapping gay men, prompting City Council’s law committee to review how the ordinance has been enforced.

Council members debated the issue Monday but delayed making a recommendation on whether to keep or rescind the law.

The so-called "exclusion zones" in Burnet Woods and Mount Airy Forest are patterned after one instituted in Over-the-Rhine in 1996 to curb prostitution and illegal drug sales.

That zone — which is being challenged in court — is credited by the city with reducing crime there.

The zones ban people arrested for sex offenses in Burnet Woods and Mount Airy Forest from those parks for 90 days after the arrest and one year if convicted. Anyone who violates the ban is arrested for trespassing.

Civil rights attorneys and gay activists say the park ordinance gives police too much discretion to make arrests and is used to harass gay men while ignoring similar activities by heterosexual couples.

Council Member Phil Heimlich, who introduced the law in 1997, said it was based on numerous complaints by residents about sexual activity in the parks.

Since the zones were created, the complaints have stopped.

"It was sufficiently flagrant that families really couldn’t enjoy our parks. It was not an isolated incident," Heimlich said.

"This thing is actually making a difference," he said.

"It’s restoring the parks to law-abiding citizens."

But Council Members Todd Portune and Tyrone Yates said the statistics raise larger issues.

According to city reports, 40 people were arrested for offenses such as public indecency, sexual imposition and soliciting in Mount Airy Forest in 1996, before the zones were created, while 37 people were arrested at Burnet Woods.

By comparison, 77 were arrested last year in Mount Airy Forest and 115 in Burnet Woods.

Portune said the numbers are troubling, adding it indicates "there is the selective, targeted entrapment type of enforcement activity."

"It either suggests the ordinance isn’t a deterrent or something else is going on," Portune said.

Stonewall Cincinnati, a gay rights group, said several people arrested contend they didn’t initiate contact and were approached by undercover police officers.

"We have file after file of complaints by people who said they were aggressively pursued, hit on and eventually arrested by overzealous cops," said Doreen Cudnick, Stonewall’s executive director.

Kent Ryan, the city’s safety director who oversees the police division, denied reports that police entice gay men into soliciting or committing sexual acts.

In June, City Council granted a temporary extension to the ordinance that creates zones, just before the group left on its summer break.

But officials said they would conduct an in-depth review based on complaints.

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