Undercover police operation Project Marie involved plainclothes officers walking the paths and trails of Marie Curtis Park to see if they would be propositioned for sex.
As of Friday, 72 people were charged with 89 offences, ranging from trespassing to engaging in a sexual act in public.
In response to the crackdown ten lawyers organized through a Law Union of Ontario listserve are offering pro bono legal advice to many of the accused.
“The police’s reaction was essentially an overreaction and a misuse of public resources,” argued Marcus McCann, one of the lawyers donating his time.
Project Marie was carried out in response to public complaints.
“It’s disturbing. I don’t know that there’s a need for it (public sexual acts),” said Courtney, a regular park user who came to walk her dogs Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s quite common to have cars parked here without anyone in the park. It closes at 11 and they’re here all night. You see cars coming in and out.”
However, McCann says “there are better ways to respond to those complaints than an undercover sex sting.”
“If you recall, last summer there were some complaints about over-drinking at Trinity Bellwoods Park, and as a result of that there was a public education campaign led by city council,” he said.
Police say the first phase of Project Marie, which began in September and lasted about eight weeks, was a public information campaign where uniformed officers reminded park users of the bylaws at issue and some of the concerns raised by members of the public around decency.
“The bylaw says you cannot engage in sex in the park. Whether that was two men, or a man and a woman, that does not matter,” said Toronto police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray, who added the intent was not to target the LGTBQ community.
The federal NDP waded into the issue by releasing a statement condemning the charges and likening the operation to the 1981 bathhouse raids in Toronto.
“It’s not 1981 anymore, but the fact that these types of targeted operations are still being used in Canada’s largest city only underscores the fact that so much more needs to be done to ensure all members of the LGBTQ community feel safe,” said Randall Garrison, the party’s critic for LGBTQ Issues.
McCann says typically charges of this nature are either dropped or downgraded to non-sexual offences by the judge, but they can have lasting impacts on those involved because of the stigma surrounding them.
“For the few that have gone on to trial in the past, typically those accused persons have been vindicated,” he said.