Advocates Angry Over Abuse Claim

New Jersey gay man’s account of mistreatment by Palisades Park police sparks outrage

Gay organizations are reacting angrily to a report in last week’s issue of Gay City News about Edel Gambe, a gay man who alleged that police beat him during an arrest for public lewdness in the New Jersey section of the Palisades Interstate Park.

“Edel’s case represents a heinous hate crime and possibly police brutality,” said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, a statewide organization. “Edel’s case should sicken anybody with a modicum of decency or concern for civil rights in America.”

Gambe was arrested in the park, which runs along the Hudson River from Fort Lee in New Jersey to Bear Mountain in New York, on July 14 last year. He said he was approached by two men, who were plainclothes officers, who urged him to expose himself. After he briefly lowered his shorts, the officers arrested him.

Gambe initially thought they were police, but he said that as they became more forceful physically he decided they were not cops and “they might be trying to gay bash me.” Gambe struggled and screamed for help.

In their reports, Detective Thomas Rossi and Officer Wayne Zelna, the arresting officers, wrote that Gambe approached them and, after he exposed himself, immediately resisted their efforts to arrest him. Both officers estimated that the struggle lasted for roughly 15 minutes.

All three were taken to a nearby hospital to have their injuries assessed. Gambe’s mug shot and photos he took after his release from jail ten days after his arrest show extensive bruising and cuts on his body.

Gambe was initially charged with two counts of aggravated assault of a police officer, two counts of resisting arrest, lewdness, and attempted escape. In his later indictment, only the lewdness charge was dropped and two counts of criminal sexual contact were added.

In July of this year, Gambe pleaded guilty to a one count of lewdness and one count of resisting arrest and was given two years on probation, and a fine of roughly $200. He was supposed to get a lifetime ban from the park, but John A. Conte, the judge in his case, did not mention this at his sentencing.

David C. Morris, chairman of the legal committee of the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition, an umbrella group, said it looked as if the police had assaulted Gambe.

“It looks to me like the cops are using excessive force,” Morris said. “I don’t believe that he attacked them at all… This is another case of excessive force by the police and more entrapment by the police who, it seems to me, are obviously enjoying it for whatever reason.”

The police force that patrols the park’s New Jersey section has racked up at least 132 arrests for public lewdness in 2004 and 2005. Almost all of those arrested have been gay or bisexual men. Rossi has made roughly half of the recent arrests and has made more than 100 arrests for lewdness since joining the force in 2002.

Clarence Patton, acting executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, said such lewdness crackdowns can lead to violence.

“One of the dangers of these sweeps and entrapment is they really do give officers license to act out on their own biases and hatred,” he said. “Given the facts that we have about this case, we have no doubt that is more than likely what occurred in this situation… This kind of behavior on the part of law enforcement is part and parcel of that toxicity… The question remains is what, if anything, the powers that be in New Jersey will do about this.”

On July 27, Garden State Equality and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey called on Richard J. Codey, New Jersey’s acting governor, a Democrat, and Carol Ash, executive director of the park, to investigate the lewdness arrests in the park. That letter was referred to Peter C. Harvey, the state attorney general, who has not responded to the groups.

“No one is holding their breath at this point for the New Jersey attorney general to act,” Goldstein said. “He has not been much of a profile in courage on LGBT issues in New Jersey, beginning with his rather vicious opposition to marriage equality to his inaction in these Palisades Interstate Park cases. Our patience with this attorney general has just about run out.”

As Gay City News was going to press, Harvey’s office had not responded to a request for comment. Harvey was appointed attorney general by former Democratic Governor James McGreevey, who resigned last year after acknowledging that is gay and had engaged in an extramarital with a man he went on to appoint to a sensitive state security job.

Goldstein said a special prosecutor might do a better job than Harvey.

“A special prosecutor is warranted because what Edel’s case presents goes even further than the gay baiting of previous cases,” he said.

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