Some charges dropped in 'Project Marie' Etobicoke park sex sting

At least some of the charges handed down in the Toronto police "Project Marie" operation last fall, in which officers targeted people — mostly men — allegedly engaging in sex acts in an Etobicoke park. have been withdrawn.

72 people faced 89 charges following operation that spurred accusations of homophobia

Marie Curtis Park in Etobicoke was the site of a six-week undercover sting by police last year. (CBC)

At least some of the charges handed down in the Toronto police "Project Marie" operation last fall, in which officers targeted people — mostly men — allegedly engaging in sex acts in an Etobicoke park, have been withdrawn.

Charges were dropped against the dozen or so accused who had enlisted the services of a legal consortium that had offered to represent them for free, one of the lawyers, Marcus McCann, told CBC Toronto.

"I can confirm that everyone who reached out to our group and decided to fight had the charges withdrawn," McCann said in an email. "There are no outstanding cases that we are dealing with."

He noted, however, that less than 20 per cent of the 72 people who had been charged reached out to McCann and his team. McCann could not speak to what had become of the rest of the accused and their charges, and CBC Toronto was not immediately able to confirm those details by other channels.

Marcus McCann was part of a group of lawyers who offered pro-bono legal support to those charged for their alleged activities at Marie Curtis Park.

The 89 charges laid in the case last Nov. 11 were mostly bylaw infractions, with only one charge being criminal in nature. "Project Marie," as it was called, targeted alleged sexual activity that was happening in Marie Curtis Park, which is located at the mouth of Etobicoke Creek.

Police at 22 Division launched their investigation into goings-on in the park about two months before the charges were made public. The probe was spurred by complaints from area residents.

Politicians accused police of homophobia

Const. Kevin Ward, who led the probe, told CBC Toronto at the time that plain-clothed officers on patrol were solicited for sex in the park, while at other times they witnessed open sexual activity and men soliciting other men.

Ninety-five per cent of those who were charged were men.

Ward denied that officers were targeting a specific group. However, politicians at all levels of government blasted Toronto police, calling the investigation homophobic.

Federal NDP critic for LGBT issues Randall Garrison said the charges were "motivated by homophobia, not public safety." But police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said at the time that Garrison had "mischaracterized" the probe.

Toronto Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam also criticized the charges at the time, saying "you can't really blame the [LGBT] community for feeling targeted once again."

At the time she called for police to throw out all except the one criminal charge.

On Monday, Wong-Tam called the development in the case "welcome news."

She said "more should have been done" to work with the LGBT community to address the issues at the park.

"I believe that a new level of awareness has been achieved within the Toronto Police Service and that more care will be taken in the future," Wong-Tam said in a statement.

"In a time of constrained budgets and limited court and policing resources, it is critical that our officers are deployed to make the best use of their time in serving all communities."

'Should have been handled differently'

For his part, McCann called for more police accountability about the operation.

"The use of undercover officers was out of all proportion to the seriousness of the issue," McCann said. "It could have and should have been handled differently."

Gray said Monday that the probe "was successful in addressing the immediate concerns" of residents who had complained to police.

She noted that uniformed officers went to Marie Curtis Park before the undercover sting and told anyone loitering there that there would be an increased police presence and that certain activities were prohibited.

"However, we know Project Marie raised concerns and, in retrospect, we should have considered outreach to our LGBTQ community partners" she said. "Going forward, as we continue to receive community complaints about Marie Curtis Park and other locations, we will execute enforcement projects in good faith."