Nearly every day, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department shoots out what are essentially pre-packaged violent crime stories. In them, the county's worst criminals are profiled, usually right after they commit the county's most noteworthy crimes.
Your typical e-mail release from CMPD contains the names of murderers, rapists, gang bangers and armed robbers, along with identifying information crucial to reporters on deadline, like photos, case numbers and detective contact names for interviews. It's not unusual for the information contained in these e-mails to be splashed across the news half an hour after they go out.
But an e-mail release the department sent out last week was a bit different from the usual.
On April 21, six detectives had set up a sting operation to target gay men who cruise some areas of Freedom Park looking for sex with other anonymous gay men. As a result of the sting, six men ranging in age between 23 and 80 were arrested on soliciting for crime against nature and public masturbation charges, both of which are misdemeanors.
Offenders arrested on misdemeanor charges rarely make the department's e-mail release list unless they are wanted for questioning in a bigger, more violent crime. But on May 3, the names, birthdates and addresses of the six men were released by CMPD.
Because men who cruise parks looking for gay sex are often not out of the closet, and in many cases are married with a family, the move had the potential to ruin the men's lives, say some members of the gay community.
They questioned whether releasing their names was fair, given those who typically make the department's releases usually commit much more serious, violent crimes.
"Having your name blasted out there before you are ever convicted of a misdemeanor is certainly not evenhanded," said longtime gay activist Don King. "They may be trying to scare others off, which will work for a while, but not for long."
Others objected to the wording of the release, which read, "Vice Detectives conducted an operation to target sexual offenders that use public places to facilitate their deviant behavior."
Department Spokesperson Amanda Giannini says that because of the sensitive nature of these cases, the department doesn't typically give out the names of the men it arrested, but that because two media outlets requested the information, it was given to all media outlets.
The names of suspects who are arrested are public record, and as Giannini pointed out, once the names of people who are arrested are posted on the Sheriff's Department website, their names, mug shots and the charges against them become public.
But releasing the names to the media adds a much greater level of exposure for several reasons. The sheriff's site cannot be searched by charge or arrest type, so unless you already know the name of the person who was arrested, retrieving information about them is impossible for the public or members of the media. And because of the fast-paced nature of most newsrooms, particularly television newsrooms, unless the department releases news of a sting and arrests, reporters aren't as likely to find out about it.
Giannini said the department typically does sting operations to target gay cruising after it receives complaints about repeated sexual activity in public places.
"We tend to get more 911 calls for service and Crime Stoppers tips during warm weather months," she said.
According to the release, the Freedom Park sting operation is one of many planned for this summer at public places including other neighborhood parks, rest areas and public restrooms. Giannini declined to disclose the specific locations the department would be targeting.
"Our hope is that our citizens choose to be intimate in private rather than in public places," she said.