The sheriff in Essex County, N.J. has suspended a controversial undercover operation aimed at cracking down on alleged public sex by gay men in a Newark park after an undercover officer last month shot a 48-year-old businessman to death.
Sheriff Armando Fontoura halted the operation following strong objections raised by two New Jersey LGBT organizations, which demanded an independent investigation into the incident.
“On behalf of our two organizations, Garden State Equality and the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey, we express our outrage over the tragic killing of Defarra Gaymon in Branch Brook Park … by a member of the Essex County Sherriff’s Department,” said Steven Goldstein, head of Equality New Jersey, and Barbra Casbar Siperstein, head of Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey.
Sheriff’s officials, who have declined to disclose the identity of the officer involved, said the officer explained that he shot Gaymon on July 16 after the Atlanta resident “lunged” at the officer. A statement says the incident began when the officer saw Gaymon masturbating and he propositioned the officer for sex.
Media reports have independently identified the officer in question as Edward Espisito, 29. He was recently awarded a medal of merit for assisting in the arrest of two suspects charged with shooting a fellow off-duty sheriff’s officer, according to the Newark Star Ledger.
The shooting death of Gaymon occurred in a part of the Newark park that’s recognized as a pickup spot for men seeking other men for sex, authorities said.
Gaymon, who was unarmed, allegedly lunged at the officer and tried to disarm the officer while threatening to kill the officer, according to Essex County Acting Prosecutor Robert Laurino.
At a news conference, Laurino said Gaymon apparently panicked after the officer identified himself and displayed his badge.
Gaymon was married and had four children. Originally from Montclair, N.J., he was visiting the state to help organize a class reunion at Montclair High School, authorities said.
The Star-Ledger reported that members of Gaymon’s family in Atlanta, where he worked as chief executive officer of a credit union, have accused the officer of fabricating the story. Family members say Gaymon was a peaceful person who never would commit a violent act, the newspaper reported.
Family members have called on the FBI to investigate the incident, saying they don’t believe local law enforcement agencies can conduct an impartial investigation into the matter.
Fontoura and sheriff’s officials have agreed to a request from the two LGBT groups to meet with officials of the groups to discuss ways to address alleged public sex in the park.
Goldstein and Siperstein said in a letter to law enforcement officials that targeting gay men in the crackdown could be a violation of state non-discrimination laws.
“We believe any operation targeting people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation would be a violation of state law,” Goldstein and Siperstein say in their July 21 letter to the sheriff and country prosecutor.
“In no way do we condone any violation of lewdness statutes,” says the letter. “But any sting operation targeting gay men or LGBT people specifically, or anyone perceived as such, is unconscionable — and as we strongly believe, illegal.”
The two noted that they “make no assumption as to the sexual orientation of the victim. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and four children.”
In other places, including D.C., activists have called on police and other law enforcement authorities to use uniformed officers to enforce laws against public sex rather than use undercover officers who pose as men interested in gay sex.
In the D.C. area, law enforcement officials have also said they recognize that gay men and others have a legal right to meet each other in parks or other locations as long as the men don’t violate the law by having sex in public.
Last week, Fontoura told the Star Ledger he’s deployed uniformed officers to the park while the undercover operation is suspended and under review.