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Kent County Sherriff reviewing undercover procedures some say unfairly target gay men

Undercover officers arrested at least a dozen men at public parks during the fall of 2010. During the sting operation, male undercover officers would approach men and suggest engaging in sexual activity. Those who reciprocated interest were charged with soliciting sex or accosting.

Jay Kaplan is a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT Legal Project. The group notified Kent County about its concerns with the undercover operation last summer. Kaplan says the men involved in the cases from 2010 were charged with a crime when really he says they were just flirting.

“I’d like to say it’s unusual,” Kaplan said, “This does occur in other counties and a lot of times you don’t find out about it because people are afraid to come forward; they’re afraid to challenge this.”

Ten years ago the ACLU successfully sued the City of Detroitover similar issues. The charges in those cases were based on a city ordinance.

Dan Ophoff is corporate counsel for Kent County. He says the sheriff’s department is working on an internal review of all undercover procedures. He expects results of the review to be complete within a month. Ophoff says similar arrests were not made this year.

Jeff Smith is executive director of the media watchdog Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy. He found out about the operations while working on a history projectabout lesbian, gay and bisexual people in West Michigan.

“To me it’s institutionalized homophobia,” Smith said of the undercover operations. He says the fact that there wasn’t some rogue officer making the arrests makes it more unacceptable.

Smith and others will bring up the issue during a meeting of elected Kent County officials Tuesday morning.

“As a white heterosexual male I have a tremendous amount of privilege.And for me that’s one way of using the privilege, is being an ally. There’s not much risk for me to take a public stand on issues like this. Whereas a lot of the men who are being targeted and arrested at these places it’s much more risky.”

Ophoff says it’s “unfair” and “offensive” to characterized the department as homophobic. "That’s just not something I’ve seen,” Ophoff said.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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