On a cool August evening, a man was walking on a paved path through the Medford section of Torbert Macdonald Park when he locked eyes with a stranger. The man, a computer technician who is gay, believed that the look suggested that the stranger wanted sex, according to gay-rights advocates.
But the stranger was an undercover state trooper, who arrested the technician - not for a sex crime, but for trespassing - after he wandered 50 feet off the path, according to a police report.
State Police arrested 31 men at the park this past summer, most of them for trespassing, reviving fears in the gay community that the police were once again targeting gay men. The sexual orientation of most of the men is unknown, but their arrests prompted gay-rights advocates to meet recently with high-ranking public safety officials in Governor Deval Patrick’s administration.
“There is some concern whether or not the State Police are up to old tactics,’’ said Amanda Escamilla, a victim advocate with Fenway Health’s violence recovery program, who attended the meeting on Nov. 4. “There is reasonable belief that it could be happening again, and, if it is, we want to make sure that it stops.’’
In 1989, State Police agreed to stop using undercover officers as decoys to crack down on alleged sexual activity between men at highway rest stops, according to a Globe report at the time.
But police officials say the recent work at the Medford park did not target any one group. Their overall goal, they say, was to maintain safety in state-owned parks and protect delicate grounds, which have been damaged by people veering off main paths to use drugs or engage in sex.
Officials at the state Department of Conservation and Recreation said that “men who have sex with men’’ go off main paths at the Middlesex Fells Reservation to have trysts, trampling on natural resources, according to a draft of the department’s resource management plan.
The language rankles advocates, who said it unfairly blames one group of people. DCR officials said they would revise the language in the plan’s final draft.
Karen Wells - undersecretary of law enforcement for the Executive Office of Public Safety, which oversees the State Police - said troopers are prohibited from targeting specific groups of people.
“I’m very comfortable from the top down that [police] are treating these types of cases appropriately,’’ she said. “I’m also confident that they’re not sending troopers out as decoys.’’
Wells organized the Nov. 4 meeting after hearing concerns from advocates.
“I think it takes a little time to figure out what’s really going on here,’’ said Bruce Bell, who runs the legal information line at the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and who attended the meeting. “The issue is, are [troopers] really just there to kind of make eye contact and find out more about the person, or are there police who are trying to get people to think, ‘I’m gay, and I want to go have sex off trail with you,’ and encourage the person to go off the trail?’’
The technician, who is also a gay rights activist, alerted GLAD after his arrest and said he had learned of other gay men arrested under similar circumstances at Macdonald Park, said Donald Gorton, chairman of the Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts.
Advocates have not independently corroborated his allegations.
Throughout history, gay people have relied on furtive glances to communicate sexual interest because to proposition aloud could lead to arrest for solicitation or assault from homophobes, Gorton said.
The use of plainclothes officers could, no matter what the intention, lead to disparate treatment of gay men, Gorton said.
“We’re the ones who those law enforcement tactics fall on most heavily,’’ he said.
The plainclothes officers are members of a unit that focuses on a variety of transgressions, including drug use or illegal swimming at reservoirs, said State Police spokesman David Procopio.
The unit began sending uniformed troopers to Macdonald Park following complaints from residents, including one married couple who reported in March that two men emerged from the woods acting suspiciously, said Procopio.
Plainclothes police, which included one female trooper, were deployed after a woman reported she had been raped there in June, he said. That crime remains unsolved.
People were arrested for trespassing after troopers saw them veer off paths in violation of posted signs, Procopio said. There were no arrests for illicit sexual activity.
Civil rights lawyers and police generally agree that engaging in sex outdoors is not illegal, as long as couples are out of public view.
Procopio said that the sexual orientation of the men arrested is unknown because it does not factor into the decision to arrest.
“I want to make very clear that we were not focusing on sexual activity,’’ he said. “We fully respect the rights of everyone to use that park. All we ask is that anyone who use it do so lawfully.’’
Wells said she did not believe that troopers at the park were told to make eye contact, but she said that eye contact is an essential component of detecting suspicious behavior.
She said she would be open to training troopers on that issue, but plainclothes police will probably continue to patrol the park.
Advocates and officials said they plan to meet again next week in hope of reaching common ground. At the last meeting, advocates met the State Police lieutenant who acts as liaison to the gay community and were encouraged to contact her directly.
“I feel now that if I do get a complaint that I do have a place where I can go,’’ Bell said. “They will listen.’’
Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com.