Overexposure?

The Dallas Police Department’s posting of photos in its “indecency” section on its Web site is probably constitutional—the fact that prostitution cases are also listed means that gay men as a class are not being singled out—but is it responsible?

Earlier this month, the Web site of KTVT-11, the CBS news affiliate in Dallas, broke the story of the indecent exposure arrest of Jermaine Jakes, who is the son of the well-known pastor and author T.D. Jakes. Jakes was caught in a sting by undercover Dallas police officers in a wooded area of Kiest Park, a spot in Oak Cliff known to be frequented by gay men looking for sex. After KTVT broke the news (actually, the gossip Web site MediaTakeOut.com beat them by about an hour, but KTVT had more details), the story quickly spread around the world. How did KTVT get the scoop? According to assistant newsroom director Sarah Garza, a newsroom employee spotted Jakes’s name on a page of the Dallas Police Department’s Web site called “Indecency Related Offenses,” where authorities post names and photos of suspects recently arrested for prostitution, indecent exposure, or public lewdness.

The photos are taken at the time of the arrest and are posted on the DPD site almost immediately, before the cases have been adjudicated. (Indecent exposure suspects are generally released at the scene and given a court date when they must appear and post bond.) “All persons are considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,” visitors to the page are informed. Which is fine, but it’s the court of public opinion that matters in cases like these, which is, after all, the whole point in publishing suspects’ names and faces in a place where people are likely to find them. Although all arrest records are public information, this is the only class of crimes for which the DPD routinely publishes names and photos.

Considered as a whole, the photos on the DPD site, which catalogues about a year’s worth of indecent exposure arrests (the majority of them made by undercover officers), suggest that there really is no profile for who you might find in a Dallas park after hours. The oldest suspect I saw was 85, though most are middle-aged. They are an ethnically diverse group. The men are generally photographed seated inside or standing in front of their cars, and many of the shots seem to be lit only by the vehicle’s interior light or the yellow fluorescence of a nighttime parking lot. Some of the men came to the park nattily dressed driving nice European imports, some arrived in broken down trucks from small towns around Dallas. A few of the pictures, like the one of Jermaine Jakes, are so poorly lit that they would be of questionable value as mug shots. But of course that is not what they are for. They all share the same look of defeat and resignation, the look of a man who is waiting for the worst part to be over, but who knows that it probably isn’t.

“It’s clearly intended to humiliate people,” said Ken Upton of the Dallas office of the gay civil rights group Lambda Legal. It also subverts the normal judicial process, since having your name posted on a site like this is a much worse outcome for some defendants (like Jermaine Jakes) than the statutory penalty they might face on conviction, which in the case of indecent exposure (a class B misdemeanor) is up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. If you are the police, Upton said, “you get your pound of flesh before you go to trial—whether you win or not.”

The DPD “indecency” section is probably constitutional—the fact that prostitution cases are also listed means that gay men as a class are not being singled out—but is it responsible? Jermaine Jakes’s arrest doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a homosexual, but many men who engage in “cruising” are in fact deeply closeted. Being outed by an arrest like this can have devastating consequences: lost job, lost wife and kids, or worse. After a sting in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 2007 netted forty men, the police turned over names, photos, and addresses to the local paper, which promptly listed them all. The next day one of the suspects committed suicide. The Johnson City police department is currently being sued by another sting victim, who maintains he was falsely accused, and only plead out to get his name out of the papers as quickly as possible.

The arrest affidavit for Jakes’s case raises another question, Did his alleged actions really constitute “indecent exposure,” as defined by the Texas statute? According to the affidavit, two undercover officers spotted Jakes and several other men in the parking lot just after 10 p.m., when the park closes. When they saw Jakes walk into the woods, one of the officers followed him in and stood where Jakes could see him, whereupon Jakes approached and exposed himself. So far, so good, but the code requires that the perp must be “reckless about whether another is present who will be offended or alarmed by his act.” Everybody in the woods that night was there for one thing only, so it was hardly reckless (as far as he knew) for Jakes to expose himself to the cop. According to the affidavit, however, there were “people walking and jogging at the park on the jogging trail next to the wooded area.” Really? After 10 p.m., when the park is closed? The police didn’t bother to collect any of these alleged joggers’ names.

If a person was after reckless sex, he presumably could have had it in the parking lot, under the lights. The whole point of first waiting for the park to close, and then walking from the parking lot to the woods, is to avoid being seen. “You’re talking about a guy in the park who is alone except for the cop,” Upton said.

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