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Protests over deaths while in custody of New Jersey police departments

By Saeed Shabazz -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Aug 27, 2009 - 1:24:16 PM

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Lawrence Hamm, chairman of Peoples Organization for Progress exhorting protesters in front of Newark's police headquarters concerning the death of Basire Farrell while in police custody. Photo: Christian E. Gales
(FinalCall.com) - The Peoples Organization for Progress, concerned friends and family members recently held rallies for two Black men, Basire Farrell, 30, of Newark and Jahqui Graham, 21, of East Orange, who were killed while in police custody in New Jersey.

At the rallies there were calls for federal investigations, and a plea for United Nations investigations of alleged human rights violations.

An Aug. 8 rally was held in front of Newark Police Department headquarters to protest the alleged beating of Mr. Farrell on a Newark street while he was handcuffed. The alleged beating took place May 15. Police said he attempted to attack officers trying to subdue him and went into cardiac arrest on the way to a hospital.

The Newark Police Dept. has not named the officers involved; nor had the results of the autopsy been released publicly at Final Call presstime. Family members and activists are questioning police accounts of what happened.

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The family of a Jahqui Graham who died while in police custody join in the protest against his untimely death. Photo: Photo: Ronella Hargrove
On Aug. 15, the Peoples Organization for Progress joined with the citizens to protest the alleged beating death of Mr. Graham, who had been jailed for public intoxication. His family has charged he was beaten in jail in East Orange, sprayed with some type of aerosol, and his body was not released until three weeks after his death with no death certificate.

Calls to the East Orange police department have not been returned.

“We are calling for federal investigations into both deaths,” Lawrence Hamm, Peoples Organization for Progress chairman, told The Final Call. There is also a call for the establishment of a civilian review board in Newark with prosecutorial power, he added. “We are working towards presenting a bill to the city council calling for the establishment of the board,” said Mr. Hamm.

The activist told The Final Call federal officials needed to get involved because the Newark incidents reflect similar abuses around the country. “Just as the public became incensed over the abuses in Abu Gharib, the coalition jail in Iraq, and the torture reported at Guantanamo Bay, where enemy combatants are being held; they should feel the same anger about the killings of people in the U.S. while in police custody,” Mr. Hamm argued.

A Justice Department Bureau of Statistics March 12 report found that between 2003-2005, some 2,002 criminal suspects died in police custody, according to the Associated Press. The report said 55 percent of those deaths were caused by law enforcement officers.

“Blacks are disproportionately represented in arrest related deaths due to alcohol or drug intoxication, 41 percent to 33 percent of Whites; unknown causes, 46 percent of the time compared to 39 percent; and accidental injury, 42 percent to 39 percent,” the report stated.

According to the Justice Dept. study, most of the in-custody deaths occurred in California, Texas and Florida, with men in these jurisdictions constituting 96 percent of the cases. Seventy-seven percent of the men who died were 18- to 44-years-old.

The international human rights watchdog organization Amnesty International reported in 1998 that “since the early 1990s” more than “60 people had died in police custody” in the United States.

If these states with the most deaths were countries, the United Nations would be calling for an international investigation, Mr. Hamm said. “Well, we are calling on the UN Human Rights Council to launch an investigation,” he said.

Mr. Hamm said the probe would be based in Article 5 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—which provide that no one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The U.S. is also a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture. Mr. Hamm's group also wants a national discussion on police tactics.