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Police 'should turn blind eye to public sex'

PA 16 October 2008

Police must only arrest people caught having sex in parks and public toilets as a last resort, according to new draft guidelines.

Officers should turn a blind eye to dogging and cottaging by consenting adults as their role is not "moral arbiter", a senior officer said. They should also study specialist sex websites for an insight into what is taking place in their local parks, car parks and public toilets.

Deputy Chief Constable Michael Cunningham, of Lancashire Police, said previous police responses to public sex spots alienated the gay community.  He said officers should respond to complaints in context and avoid a "knee jerk" reaction.

Mr Cunningham said: "In any event it is not for the police to take the role of moral arbiter, the police role is to ensure that any complaints are dealt with fairly and professionally and that where individuals are engaged in lawful activity they may do so safely."

Mr Cunningham is the lead at the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) on lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender issues.

His comments were contained in a 21-page report, titled "Guidance on Policing Public Sex Environments", leaked to Police Review.

The guidance will now go forward to be agreed by a committee of senior police officers before it is put in place across England and Wales.

It focuses on dogging, where previously unknown partners meet in public for sex, as well as cruising and cottaging, when gay men meet in parks and toilets. Mr Cunningham said it is not illegal to visit a dogging or cottaging site, but people's behaviour may be criminal.

He said officers must consider other measures, such as closing the area, putting up lighting or CCTV, or regular uniformed patrols, before making arrests.

The senior officer also warned police to avoid using plain-clothes officers as they risk accusations of being "agent provocateur".

He said public sex can affect legitimate users, with lewd sights and unhygienic litter, but arresting those responsible is not a long-term solution.

Mr Cunningham said: "The impact of enforcement can also be severe and rarely resolves the community problems associated with the existence of a public sex environment.

"This impact can be extreme and can include humiliation, breakdown of relationships and the 'outing' of men living in an opposite sex relationship being perceived as 'gay'.

"Acts of suicide and self-harm by persons who may have been arrested, charged or come into contact with the police in such a situation has happened in various parts of the country."

Mr Cunningham said officers should learn from the experiences of colleagues policing London sex spots including Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common and the Rose Garden in Hyde Park.

He said police must strike a balance between ordinary users of open spaces and "the human rights of those people who frequent open spaces for the purposes of having sexual relationships with other like-minded people."

An ACPO spokeswoman said: "This document has been put forward as a developing proposal. It is not complete and has not been adopted as ACPO guidance."

See also
Sex: A very peculiar practice
Magazine creates stir by publishing lawyers' sexy secrets

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