Tiny Lula park, which has a history as a meeting place for casual sexual encounters, was the scene of more arrests last week when four men were charged with indecent exposure or criminal trespass.
On Georgia Avenue July 21, three men were charged with offering money to an undercover officer for sex.
A week later at Jesse Jewel Parkway and at a local motel, another four people were charged with pandering in a similar sting.
After focusing on gang-related issues for the past few months, the Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad has devoted some of its resources to quality-of-life “vice” crimes in recent weeks.
Lt. Scott Ware, commander of the MANS unit, said indecent exposures like those alleged at Lula Park have not necessarily seen an increase lately.
“I don’t think it’s ever really stopped,” Ware said. “It’s just a matter of our focus being on the gang situation as opposed to other issues recently.”
Gangs have been at the forefront of MANS operations after a gang-related homicide in June that brought fears of retaliatory violence.
“That was our focus for the better part of the past couple of months,” Ware said. “But we’re still trying to address these other (crimes) as well.”
While MANS has made pandering cases in the past by advertising on the Internet, the most recent stings were done the old-fashioned way: putting a female undercover officer out on a street corner to walk the streets.
The operation has raised the ire of at least one real prostitute, Ware said. The prostitute warned a potential “John” that a woman he had been talking with was an undercover officer, according to information provided to MANS by an informant.
“We were told the real prostitute was angry because the undercover was taking her business,” Ware said.
The men arrested in recent vice operations have come from all walks of life: a marketing trainer from North Carolina, a maintenance man for Norfolk Southern, a self-employed counselor from Grayson and a 74-year-old retired contractor.
Gainesville Police Chief Brian Kelly said addressing quality of life vice crimes is important because they have the potential to lead to crimes of opportunity like physical and sexual assaults, property damage and theft if left unchecked.
“They diminish the value and enjoyment of living in the area because they produce unwanted or unnecessary traffic,” Kelly said.
Kelly said police respond immediately to complaints about quality of life-related crimes.
Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic said MANS has placed extra emphasis on pandering and indecent exposure in parks in recent weeks “with a goal to protect and maintain the quality of life in Hall County that we all enjoy.”
“We would never want our children to be exposed to these indecent acts while they are trying to enjoy our parks,” Cronic said. “We don’t want prostitution or pandering in our neighborhoods just as we don’t want gang activity.”
Ware said the undercover operations will continue.
“Our focus has been on suppressing gangs, but we also realize we have to address these other things as well,” he said. “We’re just doing what we can to make it a better place.”