New York Port Authority to Stop Undercover Public Bathroom Stings

The police agency at New York City’s main bus terminal will no longer use plainclothes officers to conduct sting operations targeting gay men in their terminal’s public bathrooms.

As the result of a legal settlement entered into federal court on Tuesday and announced yesterday, the police department for the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey (PAPD) agreed to cease plainclothes patrols of bathrooms for lewdness or exposure, institute new LGBTQ+ sensitivity training, improve the civilian complain and officer discipline process, and designate a single-stall gender-neutral restroom at the main terminal.

The case was brought by Cornell Holden and Miguel Mejia, who were represented by The Legal Aid Society and Winston & Strawn LLP. The two men said they were falsely arrested for public lewdness at the main terminal’s public restrooms in 2014. Their lawsuit, brought in 2017, alleged disturbing practices by the PAPD.

The lawsuit claimed plainclothes officers specifically targeted men they perceived as LGBTQ+ based upon appearance and would employ specific tactics to entice or entrap a response from those men. Among the tactics noted in the lawsuit were standing at the next stall and staring at the man, attempting to look at the man’s hands or genitals, and the officer exposing his own genitals to the man. The suit said officers made arrests even when there was no illegal conduct, “knowing or believing that many of those arrested would ultimately be effectively forced to plead guilty to lesser charges such as disorderly conduct to avoid the public embarrassment and humiliation, potential jail sentences and fines, and potential reputational and professional harm associated with the false charges.”

Holden claimed he overheard fellow officers refer to his arresting officer as a “gay whisperer” for his alleged success at spotting LGBTQ+ folks in public bathrooms.

PAPD denied all wrongdoing in the settlement.

Both Holden and Mejia said they had committed no illegal act and were the victims of false arrest when police detained them and claimed the two were masturbating. Both were later cleared of the charges.

The charges against Holden were dismissed and, while the case against Mejia went to trial, he was acquitted, according to The Associated Press.

“No one should have to go through what I went through, and I hope that the PAPD will change as a result of this lawsuit and settlement,” Holden said in a statement announcing the decision. “Now that the case is settled, I’m eager to put it behind me and focus on growing my cake-baking business.”

Under the settlement, Holden will receive $15,000. Mejia will receive $25,000, although he said the settlement is about more than money to him.

“I’m proud of the difference we’ve made by standing up against the PAPD’s bias-based policing,” Mejia said in a statement. “As a commuter who passes through Port Authority facilities on a daily basis, I will feel safer knowing that the reforms we fought for have been put in place, making it so that people like me aren’t arrested just because of who we are or what we look like.”