The L.A. County Sheriff's Department patrols West Hollywood, along with great swaths of L.A. County. The agency's changing its policy toward lewd conduct. In doing so, it's distinguished itself from other law enforcment agencies in the country on the issue.
Lewd conduct—the usual criminal charge for having sex in public—"is a historical issue in the LGBT community," says West Hollywood Mayor Jeffrey Prang. That's because the crime is generally associated with closeted gay men who seek anonymous encounters.
No one wants people having sex in public restrooms and parks, Prang says. But he adds that there are different ways of achieving that goal, and that most law enforcement agencies approach it the wrong way.
"Generally, lewd conduct, by definition, involves consenting adults," Prang says. But arresting officers treat people caught in the act much as they do sexual predators, he says. "They put them in jail and give them criminal records and make them register as sex offenders. While they may be engaged in some boorish behavior, it's differentiated from a sexual predator."
L.A. Sheriff's Chief Roberta Abner says changes to department policy will emphasize prevention over supression. That means undercover officers will target hotspots as a last resort.
"There's different ways of dealing with this," Abner says. "You can post notices, improve the lighting, cutting back bushes and trees and making it so that people don't have the cover of darkness."
The L.A. County Sheriff's policy stands in sharp contrast to those in some nearby jurisdictions. The Manhattan Beach Police Department recently caused a firestorm by releasing photos of 18 men caught during a sting operation in a public restroom.
Prang says the more sheriff's approach is also the more effective one.
"A person gets arrested, they're humiliated, hides, and probably won't go back," he says. "But all the other people who were engaged in lewd conduct in that area continue to go back."
In West Hollywood, where the city has taken measures like shortening the hours public restrooms are open, lewd conduct is "a shadow of what it once was," Prang says.
The new policy went into effect on October 31. It applies to all the areas the sheriff's department patrols.