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opinion

Whatever else informed the Toronto police force's handling of a party at a bathhouse this month, restraint and common sense were in short supply.

The all-night party was a lesbian gathering for which the organizers had received a special-occasion liquor licence. It was not the first such event. The police would have known the women would be in various states of undress -- cowboy outfits, lingerie, towels, nothing at all.

So who did the force send into the place at 1 a.m. without advance notice (none needed under the terms of the licence) to see whether the liquor laws were being obeyed and to interrogate the occupants? Five male plainclothes officers, who spent more than an hour wandering through the various rooms and taking down the names and addresses of several women.

And to what end? Hard to say. The police say there will be no criminal charges for indecent acts -- unlike several such charges laid after a similar visit to a gay male club in Toronto last year, charges later withdrawn by Ontario prosecutors. There were suggestions that people might be charged for "disorderly conduct" in an area where liquor was being served or for carrying drinks outside designated areas.

Given the history of Toronto police and gay bathhouses -- particularly a nasty 1981 raid on six bathhouses in which more than 300 men were arrested for offences involving consensual sex -- one might have expected the force to show more sensitivity. With that history, it doesn't take much to blur the line between routine liquor-permit enforcement and harassment. Failing to send women officers into a private, sexually charged party of women is more than enough.

The incident might have derailed a scheduled meeting between the police and Toronto gay associations to improve communications between them; but the meeting was held, and a liaison committee was formed. No question it's needed.