BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | It is standard practice among cops who conduct public sex stings to assert they are merely responding to complaints and not targeting gay and bisexual men. Some officers in the Essex County Sheriff’s Office in New Jersey appear to have missed the memo.
“The area in question is known by the above Officer’s [sic] to be frequented by individuals who engage in homosexual activity,” an unidentified officer wrote in a May 31, 2010 report on an arrest in Newark’s Branch Brook Park.
Essex County Sheriff’s Office targeted only men in park sex stings
After an unarmed DeFarra Gaymon was shot and killed in that park last July by Edward Esposito, a detective in the Sheriff’s Office, Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s statewide gay lobbying group, made an open records request to that office seeking documents related to alleged “sexual conduct” in Essex County parks from 2005 to mid-2010.
Esposito said that Gaymon was masturbating and approached him in the park. When the police officer attempted an arrest, Gaymon fled. Esposito gave chase, and when that pursuit ended, he said, Gaymon threatened him and then lunged at him, at which point the officer fired in self-defense.
Esposito was involved in three 2009 public sex arrests that turned violent.
Garden State Equality obtained records on 167 arrests or investigations, with 148 of those occurring in Branch Brook Park or South Mountain Reservation, which is located in West Orange, Maplewood, and Millburn. Of the 148, 130 were arrests of men who may have been cruising for sex or, in some cases, were observed having sex with other men.
In the majority of the 130 reports, officers write that they are on “plain clothes detail,” patrolling “in response to quality of life complaints,” or conducting “surveillance of the lewd acts or sexual offenses” in the parks.
In some reports, however, it was clear police were looking for a specific population.
“The purpose of the detail was to act as a park user while conducting an investigation and surveillance in regards to the sexual offenses, lewd acts and prostitution that occurs between males inside of Branch Brook Park,” an unidentified officer wrote in a July 16, 2010 arrest report.
In 18 of the 96 arrest reports from South Mountain Reservation, officers wrote they were responding to complaints of “lewd acts” by “male” park users. The 18 reports were dated 2007 or earlier. That same language was used in 17 of the 34 arrest reports from Branch Brook Park, and those 17 were also dated 2007 or earlier.
The arrest reports show that the Sheriff’s Office ran organized public sex stings in the parks. The fact that they arrested only a single heterosexual couple in South Mountain Reservation in 2008 and a second heterosexual couple in Branch Brook Park in 2009 suggests that straight couples having public sex were never of interest.
Such selective targeting of gay men, assuming that can be concluded from the records, is frequently a sore point for gay groups.
“When we met with the Sheriff’s Office last year, the sheriff assured us that its operations in Essex County parks were not discriminatory and did not target the LGBT population and gay men specifically,” said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality. “If that were true, we would have no problem with such operations. However, the information in these documents very much calls into question the idea that these operations were, in fact, neutral on the basis of sexual orientation. I’m not sure there could be a more crystal clear statement than these two reports to indicate that gay men have been exclusively targeted.” Goldstein was referring to the May 31 and July 16 arrest reputs from last year quoted above.
The records also suggest that officers in the Essex County Sheriff’s Office, which did not respond to an email seeking comment, grew more aggressive in their policing over time.
In 2005, officers largely charged men with lewdness, a misdemeanor that is heard by New Jersey’s Municipal Courts, the lowest level courts where traffic offenses and minor crimes are tried.
By 2009 and 2010, officers were charging criminal sexual contact far more often than lewdness. That felony charge is presented to a grand jury and tried in New Jersey’s Superior Courts.