Palm Springs police chief retires
by Ed Walsh
The firestorm that erupted in Palm Springs over the 2009 gay sex sting in the city's gay Warm Sands neighborhood boiled over Wednesday with the news that Police Chief David Dominguez will retire.
In a statement, the chief wrote in part: "After careful consideration of the recent debates surrounding the Warm Sands law enforcement operation, I believe this decision is in the best interest of my family, my health, the department and the city."
The city said it would begin looking for a new police chief immediately.
Openly gay Mayor Steve Pougnet, who until now has remained largely silent on the issue, issued a statement Wednesday.
"I support the decision by the police chief to retire and agree that it is in the best interest of the city and the department – to begin the healing process for the community. Yet, there remains much work to be done."
The latest flare-up over the sex sting came last week after an inflammatory comment by Dominguez was made public.
It was revealed that Dominguez actively participated in the sting and called those subjected to the sting "filthy motherfuckers."
Dominguez acknowledged making the remark and issued an apology last week.
"It's disgusting. It's absolutely disgusting," said Thomas Van Etten, a community activist and former member of the Palm Springs Police Advisory Committee who resigned in protest over the city's handling of the controversy. Van Etten made his comments before news of the chief's retirement was announced. He had called for Dominguez to be fired and had blasted the Palm Springs City Council.
There are five members on the Palm Springs City Council, including the mayor. Pougnet and two other council members are openly gay. None returned the Bay Area Reporter's e-mails or phone calls.
"Every time you lift up the rug, you find another body," said Robert Stone, a founding member of the Warm Sands Neighborhood Organization. Stone was referring to the unfolding series of damaging information being revealed in connection with the sting operation. Just after Dominguez used the MF slur, an officer was recorded on tape calling a potential sting suspect a "cock-sucker."
Stone, who made his comments before Dominguez's retirement was announced, echoed Van Etten's sentiments and had called for the chief to be fired. His organization sent a letter to city officials last week denouncing the chief's remarks but the group stopped short of recommending that he be fired. Stone is an author and a B.A.R. contributor who writes under the pen name Robert Julian.
Dominguez admitted using the slur after a complaint was filed by attorney Gregory Petersen. The lawyer told the B.A.R. this week that he has represented individual Palm Springs police officers for 30 years. He hoped the complaint would help expose what he considered to be the chief's hypocrisy. Previously, Dominguez strongly condemned one of his officers for calling a potential suspect a "cock-sucker."
"How can you throw stones if you are doing the same thing?" Petersen said.
Petersen would not say whether he was representing the officer accused of making the "cock-sucker" remark.
The sting resulted in the arrests of 19 suspects. If convicted, the men would be required to register as sex offenders for life in a database that would be accessible only to law enforcement.
Dark parking lot
The sting was conducted in a dark parking lot of a gay resort. The police department used young, muscular officers to try to get men to expose their genitals. According to Roger Tansey, a public defense attorney for six of the arrested men, it took one officer as long as 20 minutes to finally get a man to expose himself. Another man insisted on going with the officer to his hotel. But the undercover officer insisted on "seeing the goods" before he would go anywhere with the man. The man finally complied and was arrested.
A Palm Springs police sergeant and a lieutenant testified in depositions that there was a tacit agreement ahead of time with the Riverside County District Attorney to charge the men with penal code section 314, which comes with a lifetime sex crime registration. The 314 charge is commonly used for flashers. City officials deny that there was any agreement with the DA's office. But a former prosecutor with the DA's office came forward to say that there was indeed such an agreement.
Dominguez did not return the B.A.R. 's call for comment by press time. In a December 28 statement he wrote in part: "During the Warm Sands arrests an inappropriate comment made by me did not display the utmost professional conduct expected from the chief of police and I sincerely apologize to the community at large. Today, a year and a half after the Warm Sands arrests were made, I pledge a renewed vigor to the safety and sensitivity of our community."
City Manager David Ready did not return the B.A.R. 's call by press time, but in a six-page statement also issued on December 28, Ready chronicled the controversy, again denied that there had been any prior agreement with the DA over the charges, and apologized for the "extremely offensive comments that have been attributed to some members of our team."
One of Palm Springs' three out city council members, Ginny Foat, was one of the few elected officials to say anything about the recent controversy over Dominguez's comments. She told the Desert Sun newspaper that although the chief should not have made those remarks, she doesn't think they were homophobic.
"I think he was disgusted with the behavior and he could have put that comment in the context of any kind of crime," Foat told the paper.
According to the complaint filed by Petersen in September, Dominguez told the officers they deserve extra pay for working on the sting and called the would-be defendants "a bunch of filthy motherfuckers."
Van Etten said he was outraged by Foat's defense of Dominguez.
"She's a turncoat. She's an absolute turncoat," the activist said.
The firestorm over the sting is showing no signs of dying out. This week, the B.A.R. has learned of another potentially explosive allegation in the case. Tansey, the defense attorney, told the B.A.R. that he received an anonymous letter last month that was sent in a Palm Springs Police Department envelope. It alleged that a police department employee was granted a promotion in exchange for giving testimony that would be more favorable to Dominguez. Tansey turned the letter over to the FBI.
The next step for Tansey and his clients will be on January 20, when a judge will consider a motion to dismiss the charges. The attorney has maintained that the sting was discriminatory because the department turned a blind eye toward heterosexual public sex.