NEWS ANALYSIS: Police chief’s retirement doesn’t solve big gay problem for Palm Springs

The headlines say it all:

BREAKING NEWS: Palm Springs police chief to retire after Warm Sands sex sting fiasco and anti-gay slurs

BREAKING NEWS: Palm Springs admits wrongdoing in Warm Sands sex sting

Undercover police officer used gay slur during Palm Springs sex sting, witness testifies

Defense wants to know: Did police specifically target gay men?

Palm Springs may be considered a gay Mecca, but its reputation has been tarnished and tarred by a 2009 undercover sex sting that went terribly wrong.

The scandal has sent Police Chief David Dominguez into an early retirement and created a public relations nightmare for the city and for tourism officials.

Many have questioned why the Police Department would conduct such an “old school” sting, a relic of years gone by when gay men were regularly targeted for harassment and humiliation by local authorities. Think of the Stonewall riots of 1969, when the gay community fought back against blatant discrimination and persecution by police and city officials – launching the gay civil rights movement.

Many have wondered why the sting operation employed attractive and muscular young police officers who dressed provocatively in tight jeans and wife beaters, and who lured men through sexually charged invitations and by rubbing their crotches. Did nobody on the police force consider that entrapment would be a credible defense?

On May 12, 2010, SDGLN was the first to report the details of the sting operation and the plans by the Riverside County Public Defender’s Office to fight the charges.

SDGLN also reported accusations that the Palm Springs Police Department met with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office in advance of the sting and agreed to charge all men who would be arrested with lewd conduct felonies that would require them to register as sex offenders for a lifetime, if found guilty.

While reporting on the story, SDGLN contacted numerous city and tourism officials, and none wanted to go on record to discuss the matter. All were keenly interested to know what happened, however.

To their credit, Riverside County Public Defender Gary Windom and Deputy Public Defender Roger Tansey built a great case for the defendants.

In court documents filed last spring, they made serious allegations:

1) The Palm Springs Police Department exclusively targeted gay men in undercover sex stings, suggesting that the operation was discriminatory in nature.

2) Heterosexual couples get a free pass on public sex in Palm Springs and throughout Riverside County, again showing that authorities favored one group over another.

3) A backroom deal was struck with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office to force those arrested in the sting operations to plead to a harsher charge, requiring lifetime registration as a sex offender.

Tansey told SDGLN in May that he believed the case was about homophobia and that the Police Department was out to “get the gay guys.”

Further evidence was uncovered and presented to the court, including testimony that a police officer uttered an anti-gay slur during the undercover operation – which was discovered during a review of police surveillance video taken during the Warm Sands sting. The witness testified that the officer, who was observing the sting from a nearby unmarked police car, called a man caught in the bust a “c---sucker.”

The police chief announced in mid-June that he would review the gay slur and the department issued this statement:

“The Palm Springs Police Department has reviewed videotapes made during the undercover operation and determined that an inappropriate comment was made, which in no way reflects the policy of the Palm Springs Police Department. An administrative review related to this remark has been initiated by the Office of the Chief of Police.”

After that review was made, Police Chief Dominguez announced that he had disciplined the officer.

What Dominguez failed to disclose at the time was that he, too, was at the sting operation and that he was the first officer to use an anti-gay slur. The police chief called the men caught in the sting "filthy motherf-----s."

Tansey, the deputy public defender, called the police chief a hypocrite for punishing an underling when he, too, was equally guilty of making derogatory comments. He said "the cover-up" became a bigger problem for the police chief and the Police Department.

Dominguez did not acknowledge he made disparaging comments until months later after the city manager launched his own investigation into what went wrong at the Warm Sands sting.

City Manager David Ready released his explosive report on Dec. 28. Some have accused Ready of timing the release of his report at a time when few people would be paying attention to news while they celebrate Christmas and the New Year’s holiday.

The report admits that critical mistakes were made during the sting, noting “disturbingly offensive remarks” by the police chief and undercover officers; improperly using undercover decoys instead of surveillance cameras and police patrols; and the failure to inform the Warm Sands neighborhood about complaints of public sex, drug use and sales, and prostitution in the area.

Also on Dec. 29, Dominguez again apologized for his “inappropriate comment.”

But while the report said that “appropriate disciplinary and correction action has already been taken,” Ready said additional disciplinary actions are likely. Many said that sent a loud message to the police chief, whose contract was expiring and who apparently sensed that he would have difficulty getting an extension.

The police chief’s retirement – and Mayor Steve Pougnet’s call for the healing process to begin in the community – will not end this drama. The men caught in the sting are still facing trial, although a motion to dismiss will be made Jan. 20. Any of those arrested could turn around and sue the city, the Police Department and even Dominguez.

What price do you put on the harm it has done to tourism? How many people will choose to spend their gay dollars elsewhere? Who will want to move to Palm Springs if the members of the Police Department are clearly homophobic and disrespectful to the sizable LGBT community? How do you repair the damage to the police force’s credibility when it does not have a single member who is openly gay?

In an interview last week before the police chief announced his retirement, Tansey was critical of Dominguez and the Police Department.

Tansey noted how the police chief has lied about the extent of his involvement in the sting operation and hide from the public that he was sitting in an unmarked police vehicle during one of the stings. He also found it odd that the police chief “investigated” the slurs accusations, punished an undercover officer for anti-gay remarks, when in fact Dominguez started the tirade by calling the men “filthy motherf------s.”

“He has a terrible lack of credibility,” Tansey said, not knowing at the time that Dominguez would suddenly take an early retirement.

Tansey says he is still waiting to see proof that any resident or business owner had actually filed a complaint about gays cruising the parking lot outside a Warm Sands gay resort complex.

He said the Public Defender's Office looked into two years of arrest records involving public sex and noted the discriminatory pattern of targeting only gay men, not straight couples.

“Eighty-three percent of complaints from the public were mostly from straight women,” Tansey said, listing various incidents of when men had flashed or mooned them on city streets and even finding complaints about heterosexual sex in the local water park that were not investigated by police.

He wondered why the City Council – three of the five members are gay or lesbian – has publicly backed the Police Department despite the mounting evidence showing that the sting operation was highly flawed.

Tansey also questioned why certain members of the LGBT community have supported the police force, and not the case that he has built that the sting was discriminatory.

“Even some gay people don’t get it,” Tansey said. “And the anti-gay gays don’t get it. Many people have missed the ‘equal protection’ issues.”

Not to mention the “entrapment” issues, which have been largely ignored as the homophobic comments by police inflamed the situation.

Tansey is not sure what will happen at the Jan. 20 hearing on the motion to dismiss. He is hopeful that the right judge will be assigned to hear the motion, but he notes that Riverside County leans toward the conservative side. "Anything could happen," he said.

Palm Springs has hit a crossroads. The old guard that is resisting the rapidly changing demographics – the LGBT community is growing and thriving, now making up about 40 percent of the population – must give up antiquated ideas that it is OK to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The Police Department must start hiring gays and lesbians to represent the many faces of Palm Springs, and the city must start the healing process by paving the way. After all, the mayor is openly gay and he must lead by example and make Palm Springs a shining beacon of tolerance and diversity.