N.J. Activists Up in Arms Over Police Shooting in Park Sex Sting

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Thursday July 29, 2010

New Jersey LGBT groups are demanding answers from local officials after an undercover police officer fatally shot a man suspected of soliciting sex in a Newark park.

Garden State Equality and the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey suspect a police "sting" operation targeting gay men was to blame for the July 16 shooting death of DeFarra "Dean" Gaymon, a 48-year-old married father of four and head of the Credit Union of Atlanta, in Branch Brook Park, a well-known gay cruising ground. And the groups continue to seek answers from both the Essex County's Sheriff's Department and the Essex County Prosecutor's office.

"We believe any operation targeting people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation would be a violation of state law," the two groups wrote in a letter to the agencies. "New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination expressly outlaws discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. In no way do we condone any violation of lewdness statutes. But any sting operation targeting gay men or LGBT people specifically, or anyone perceived as such, is unconscionable-and as we strongly believe, illegal."

As EDGE previously reported, Gaymon, who was in town to attend his high school reunion, allegedly approached an undercover police officer, exposed himself, and propositioned him for sex on July 16. Police accounts maintain Gaymon threw the officer to the ground and ran away after he attempted to arrest him-and Gaymon reportedly tried to attack the officer after he caught up with him. The officer, who was "fearing for his life", shot him twice.

Gaymon died three hours later in a local hospital. According to published reports, the 29-year-old officer who shot Gaymon was so traumatized by the shooting he was treated with medication and has not returned to duty.

"We're saddened by this tragedy and our heartfelt condolences go out to his family," said Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura in his early remarks to the press.

A spokeswoman at the Acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino's office told EDGE their investigation is ongoing. And it will continue until the case goes before a Grand jury.

"We didn't run the operation so we're not getting into issues of discrimination," added the spokesperson. "Basically we are investigating the shooting and will present it to a Grand Jury. They will decide whether the police officer will be indicted. If so, then there will be a trial. If not, then that's the end of it as far as our office is involved."

Garden State Equality and GRAANJ requested Fontoura and Laurino inform them whether the killing was related to a sting operation targeting gay men, and if so, they "cease and desist such operations in Branch Brook Park, and any others like it in Essex County."

The groups also requested the agencies meet with them as soon as possible, and establish an independent investigation into Gaymon's death. And finally, they evoked the Open Public Records Act to request all documents related to previous lewdness arrests in Branch Brook Park, starting from 2005.

"Obviously our concern at GRAANJ is that the police respect and enforce New Jersey's law against discrimination, which protects people from discrimination against them for their actual or perceived sexual orientation. That is our primary concern," said GRAANJ director Barbra Casbar Siperstein. "There is also obviously a possibility of entrapment. This is a tragic situation, and it highlights the need for so many answers to these questions."

Steven Goldstein, chief executive officer of Garden State Equality, agreed.

"We see this as a disproportionate and illegal targeting of gay men, which is a violation of New Jersey's anti-discrimination law," he added. "No group should be targeted because of who they are, and we are deeply troubled that justice is not being enforced equally."

Goldstein's and Siperstein's groups met with the local sheriff and prosecutor's office on July 28. And officials assured them their requests had been forwarded to the appropriate agencies.

"The Sheriff said his office does not conduct stings targeting gay men specifically, and mentioned arrests involving non-LGBT people that would be included in the documents we'd receive," said Goldstein after the meeting.

He further detailed the meeting.

"When we proposed that our organizations partner with the sheriff's office to develop a program that would give the LGBT community input into law enforcement decisions that affect our lives-including on operations in Essex County parks-Sheriff Fontoura and his staff were immediately receptive, for which we thank them," added Goldstein. "We will be meeting them next week, and no doubt further in the weeks ahead, to discuss the next steps. Make no mistake, we will remain vigilant every step of the way."

Although the prompt response to these requests is heartening, this is not the first time that New Jersey law enforcement has come under scrutiny for sting operations. Garden State Equality and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent a joint letter to then-Gov. Jon Corzine and then-Attorney General Zulima Farber in Aug. 2006 urging them to conduct a formal investigation into the Palisades Interstate Park Police Department's sting operations targeting gay men. According to reports, in some cases police officers would approach men and solicit them for sex, then arrest them. Police also reportedly extorted the suspects for cash in lieu of arrests.

In their letter, the groups wrote "the sting operation... appears to be systematic, legally condoned gay-bashing, as well as a misuse and waste of public funds." Garden State Equality and the ACLU-NJ had voiced concerns about violations of New Jersey's anti-discrimination laws. And these concerns remain in the Gaymon case.

"We don't know that Mr. Gaymon was gay, but the law could protect straight people perceived as gay, and we want to see this law enforced," said Siperstein. "The Essex Police have to be held accountable. They have got to know our community is watching."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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