The headlines appear to suggest a sudden surge in the number of men using public bathrooms at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for indecent purposes.
But the commander of the police officers making the arrest says it just ain't so --- the cops are just getting better at catching them.
"The reason we see an increase is because our tactics changed," said Maj. Darryl Tolleson, commander of the airport precinct for the Atlanta Police Department.
Those tactics include discreet peeks through the crack in closed restroom stall doors if an officer hears anything unusual.
The Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said there are no apparent legal problems with that procedure because the patrols take place on public property.
"If it's a public place, there is no real right to privacy," said Gerry Weber, legal director for the ACLU in Georgia.
Tolleson said his precinct late last year began using plainclothes officers to patrol the restrooms searching for luggage thieves. But those patrols, he said, resulted in an increased number of incidental busts for indecent exposure, including the high-profile arrest of Ed Wall, chairman of the MARTA board of directors.
Wall, who has maintained his innocence after his arrest on a public indecency charge, resigned from the leadership post but still serves on the 18-member MARTA board.
His well-publicized bust --- he is accused of having oral sex with a man who flew in from Indiana --- has not prevented other men from using the airport's public toilets for public sex. Just this week, a Delta Air Lines employee was busted in an airport restroom for public indecency.
Starting in 1998, the number of public indecency arrests was six per year or fewer until 2006, when it increased to eight, according to data provided by the Atlanta Police Department. But so far this year, police already have busted 26 people.
"What would happen in the past is we would go in there in uniform looking for baggage thieves," Tolleson said.
"But the guys who are in there and want to commit public indecent acts would not do that when they saw a uniformed officer."
The airport has been mentioned as a meeting place on several online sites that cater to men seeking anonymous sex with other men.
The online site craigslist.com lists thousands of solicitations for anonymous sex between men as part of the "men seeking men" section of its Atlanta site. From Monday through Friday afternoon, 33 men had sought sex with other men at the airport or nearby hotels. More than 200, however, had sought a rendezvous in the Midtown area and about 35 in the Alpharetta area.
Tolleson said plainclothes officers now go into the airport's restrooms dressed as passengers.
"They try to blend in," he said.
They are looking for thieves who have grabbed luggage and are rifling it for valuables.
"What they do is go to a stall and go through a bag, and if they don't have what they want, they go out and get another one," Tolleson said. "They just leave the other bag in the stall."
Tolleson said that if an officer hears unusual activity he will peek through the crack in the stall's exterior to try to determine what is taking place.
"The emphasis is still on baggage theft, and these other crimes are [discovered] incidentally," he said. Tolleson said there are currently eight plainclothes officers patroling the airport. Many carry luggage to blend in with other passengers, he said.
When an arrest is made, the plainclothes officers often call in uniformed officers so they don't give away their cover. He said he thinks the tactic has been successful detecting and deterring airport crime.
"It's here to stay," he said.
Computer-assisted reporting specialist Megan Clarke contributed to this article.
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