Torpy at Large: This is no walk in the park for DeKalb sheriff

When the cop's flashlight illuminated the hapless form of DeKalb County Sheriff Jeffrey Mann lingering in the gloom of Piedmont Park, the good sheriff undoubtedly saw his political career flash before his eyes.

For generations, Atlanta’s premier park has been the after-dark grounds for anonymous male hookups. And the thought of an elected official — especially one heading a law enforcement agency — being associated with what is widely seen as furtive endeavor might turn any politician into a sprinter.

The police report states that the officer watched a man fondle and then expose himself before walking toward him. The cop did his own flashing (with his light), announced himself and then the chase was on.

The 54-year-old sheriff led a younger, more fit Atlanta bike cop on a quarter-mile foot chase until the discrepancy in vigor caught up with Mann, who gave up on Ninth Street, a couple of blocks from the park. The cop said he found two condoms in the suspect’s pocket. Mann was charged with misdemeanor counts of public indecency and obstruction of an officer.

The sheriff, in a short statement to the media, said it was a misunderstanding and he is working to clear his name.

His attorney, Noah Pines, a former prosecutor and expert in sex crimes and expungement, released a statement saying that Mann, “asks that you respect that this is a personal matter, which should have no bearing on the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office and its staff.”

No doubt, such an incident is personal, as well as embarrassing, unseemly and sad. It seems he might have an easier time accidentally shooting someone and surviving politically (see Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill).

If one takes the low-key, unmarried sheriff at his word, he was embarking on an evening nature hike in the park at closing time. Or maybe he was just peeing. Or somehow the cop mistakenly saw what he saw. Perhaps Mann will get the charges dropped with a fine. Or even thrown out.

But he can’t unring this bell.

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has asked Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint a committee that would investigate Mann and report back in 30 days. Mann could be suspended up to 90 days.

Also, the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) could look at revoking or suspending Mann’s law enforcement certification. The fellows at POST aren’t happy with the sheriff’s skedaddling.

In the scheme of things, prowling around a park in search of a buddy isn’t like stealing taxpayer money or beating someone silly or getting a DUI. Still, this is Georgia, and such activity is frowned upon in many quarters.

Just look at how fervently the late and wildly popular megachurch minister Eddie Long whipped up anti-gay support.

But for Mann — who took over in 2014 and was re-elected last year — the damage is done. Look up the terms "DeKalb sheriff" and "indecency" on Google and you'll get thousands of hits.

If what’s alleged to have happened is true, one wonders why a public official with so much to lose would be out there in such a potentially dangerous situation. And I do mean dangerous.

Men out there alone can be robbed or beat up or worse.

Early one morning in May 2009, a man named Patrick Boland was found stabbed to death near the park’s lake. Police believed he might have been cruising for sex and was robbed, but the crime was never solved.

And the following year, Dean Gaymon, the CEO of the Atlanta City Employees Credit Union, was shot and killed in Newark, N.J., by a cop investigating reports of public sex in a park. The officer said Gaymon, a married father of four, panicked and ran away after he tried to arrest him. And the officer alleged that later, Gaymon lunged at him. Gaymon’s family disputed that version, sued and settled for $1.5 million.

Possibly the allure of the danger brings some to the park. Others just can’t fathom the idea of anyone ever finding them out. One of Atlanta’s oldest gay bars sits just a few hundred feet from where the officer approached Mann.

But to go in there and look for a pickup would also include being seen by others. Some people just figure they can’t risk being outed like that, so they’re left lingering in the park.

Stories of gay cruising and arrests at Piedmont Park go back decades, as well as complaints about entrapment by police.

Twenty years ago, the park was still THE place for hookups. I remember once being there with my wife and daughter, feeding the ducks, when it got dark. Suddenly, we looked up and noticed the families and couples and joggers were gone, replaced by single men slowly walking the trails.

It was as if a silent whistle had sounded.

“Piedmont was rated like fourth or fifth in the nation for gay sex” by websites that rate such enterprises, retired Atlanta police Sgt. Barry Miller told me. Miller was hired in the late 1990s to work off-duty by the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance, a neighborhood group.

“There were condoms all over the place,” he said. They cut down bushes, patrolled the paths and put bars on the towering slide on the playground to make the secluded staircase off-limits.

“We arrested 300 the first year,” Miller said. “We locked up people with good jobs. They’d be begging us not to. It was sad. But we were trying to make a point.”

The number of arrests dropped dramatically as word of enforcement got out — or, more probably, as such encounters began to be arranged via apps on phones.

Atlanta police said Mann was just the fifth arrest for such alleged behavior at the park this year.

When he heard of the arrest, Matt Hennie, founder of the gay news site Project Q Atlanta, initially thought “how old-fashioned.”

He said police aren’t as hard-nosed nor as quick to entrap people looking for hookups.

“But I guess if they are presented with something as obvious as this situation, then they have to react,” said Hennie. “I feel for him. I don’t judge him for it. He’ll pay the price more than any other citizen.”