Toronto police are helping residents in South Etobicoke take back a park that has allegedly been used as a place for sexual activity at all times of the day.
Police said Friday they have laid 89 charges, mainly bylaw infractions, against 72 people as part of what they call Project Marie. Only one of the charges is criminal.
The aim of the police operation is to clean up Marie Curtis Park, a green space at the mouth of Etobicoke Creek in Long Branch, Toronto's most southwestern area, close to Mississauga.
The project began after police stepped up patrols of the park following community complaints, according to Toronto police Const. Kevin Ward of 22 Division.
"When we started doing some extra patrols down there, my partner and I came across an individual standing on the beach that drew our attention," Ward said.
"He was engaged in some sexual activity. When we went over and investigated, we found out that he was a registered sex offender and was in breach of his conditions at that time. That very alarming arrest kind of spring-boarded this entire project in motion."
Ward said officers, during their "plain clothes enforcement," were solicited for sex in the park. At other times, officers witnessed open sexual activity or men soliciting other men.
"Ultimately, at the end of the day, the public and the community has come to us and said, 'this behaviour is out of control, it's unacceptable and we don't want it in our neighbourhood.'"
Ward said police are not targeting any one particular group. "We have been told clearly by the public that they want this behaviour gone. Whether it's males or females being engaged in this activity, it's not acceptable."
'This is entirely in response to community complaints'
Meaghan Gray, spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, said the criminal charge that has been laid is failure to comply. The other charges are provincial or municipal offences, involving such infractions as trespass to property, accessing restricted areas and engaging in a prohibited activity. Ninety-five per cent of those charged are men.
Two months ago, police launched the project after several complaints from the community, a couple of reports of sexual assault and an arrest for indecent exposure, all of which occurred in the park, she said. The sexual acts mainly involve men having sex with men.
The project started with public education, includes enforcement of bylaws and is culminating in a community walk, "Walk the Beat - Marie Curtis Park (West Side)," organized by 22 Division and scheduled for Nov. 19 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Community groups, namely Neighbourhood Watch and the Community Police Liaison Committee, are helping police clean up the park, Gray said. The community event will celebrate what the project has achieved and include a candelight march.
"It's quite a large park. There's wooded areas, there are biking trails and hiking trails. There are a number of areas affected, but certainly the incidents are taking place at all times of the day," she said.
She said the community wants the park to be a family friendly place where adults and children can enjoy the outdoors without fear of witnessing sexual acts. There have also been complaints about litter left behind, including condoms.
Gray said the project is not an anti-gay initiative on the part of the Toronto police. "I don't think this has anything to do with the sexual orientation of those involved," she said.
"We don't even know the sexual orientation. This is entirely in response to community complaints and the type of behaviour that is not welcome in our public spaces."