Violence fears after death in custody

THE DEATH in police custody of a black man on Staten Island has been ruled a homicide by the New York medical examiner, and the island's 380,000 residents are holding their breath as the case against three policemen unfolds, hoping the protests will not turn violent.

Lying prone on the pavement, his hands cuffed behind his back, his neck and chest compressed so tightly he could not draw a breath, Ernest Sayon, 22, died of asphyxiation during a police drug raid on a low-rent housing estate. Sayon was no angel, apparently. Known as 'Rabbit' on the streets, he was arrested in 1992 for possession of a controlled substance and for resisting arrest. Last month, he was arrested for firing 20 rounds into a housing project and later turned up in hospital with a bullet wound and wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Sayon had been ordered to stop by officers who heard a firecracker go off during the drug sweep. What happened next is a matter for a grand jury. It will decide whether the three policemen involved should be indicted for murder. New York's mayor, Rudy Guiliani, has promised: 'There will be justice in this case, you have my word.'

Staten Islanders are the mayor's people, mostly. They are 80 per cent white, heavily of Italian descent and middle-class with the highest median income among New York's five boroughs. They are the ones who were looking for a mayor who would crack down on criminals and raise the quality of life. Mr Guiliani, a former prosecutor, was their man.

But having helped to elect him, they then wanted to secede from the city. They think they can go it alone without the city's high taxes, crime and garbage. The 'mountains' on the island's naturally flat 387,000 acres are made of garbage, mostly from Manhattan.

In past times, the New York police department used to send bad cops to Staten Island where they could walk the beat on streets without crime and contemplate their wrongdoing. Now it is far from a crime backwater. An angry but orderly crowd of a few hundred protested against Sayon's death. Others drove through the streets shouting 'justice'. Some saw the issue less one of race than overzealous, authoritarian police.