Jazz Hayden and the Fight Against Stop-and-Frisk

An unlikely activist's battle with the NYPD's frisky business

Jazz Hayden and the Fight Against Stop-and-Frisk

Jazz Hayden might be the most unlikely character in the long-running controversy over the NYPD's stop-and-frisk campaign, which has affected more than 4 million New Yorkers since 2004.

The 70-year-old Hayden, whose given name is Joseph, is a longtime community activist in Harlem. In a past life, he was a street hustler who served three years in prison in the late 1950s for drugs, was falsely accused in the late 1960s in a high-profile shooting of two police officers in the politically turbulent year of 1968, was convicted of money laundering in the 1970s, and served 13 years in prison from 1986 to 2000 for manslaughter after a traffic dispute turned fatal.

Hayden has spent the past four years irritating police officers by videotaping them as they stop and frisk people in Harlem in a program he calls "Copwatch." He often posts the videos on the Internet. For most of that period, he encountered little more than annoyed cops, but recently, his activities might have caught up with him.

Jazz Hayden stands where he alleges police illegally searched his car in December 2011. After the search yielded a penknife, Hayden was arrested on a felony weapons charge.
Lyric Cabral
Jazz Hayden stands where he alleges police illegally searched his car in December 2011. After the search yielded a penknife, Hayden was arrested on a felony weapons charge.
Hayden, a longtime Harlem community activist, films stop-and-frisks and then posts the videos to the Internet as part of his Copwatch program. Hayden plans to sue the NYPD for improper stop and arrest after he was pulled over by police in December.
Lyric Cabral
Hayden, a longtime Harlem community activist, films stop-and-frisks and then posts the videos to the Internet as part of his Copwatch program. Hayden plans to sue the NYPD for improper stop and arrest after he was pulled over by police in December.

Last summer, Hayden filmed two plainclothes officers during an evening car stop. The exchange between Hayden and the officers was contentious, even though the two motorists who were stopped were let go without charges.

At least one officer was aware of Hayden's past, because at one point, he can be heard saying: "You done selling drugs yet or what? I know your rap sheet." And then later, the tape shows, the same officer can be heard saying: "Go sell some more drugs, sir. We know your background. I know who you are."

Then, on December 2, as Hayden drove away after a meeting at Riverside Church, the same two officers stopped him, searched him, and arrested him for possession of a penknife. "We know you," one of them said.

"These guys knew who I was," Hayden says, calling it "NYPD officers taking revenge on me. . . . It was clear retaliation."

Chris Woods, a 35-year-old security guard, happened to be walking by and witnessed the police stop Hayden. "He didn't say anything offensive or abusive to the officers, but that wasn't good enough for them," Woods says. "That he was talking with them seemed to make them more furious. The whole thing shouldn't even have been a criminal matter."

What probably should have been a minor incident became 48 hours in holding cells and a felony weapons charge against the activist. Hayden's arrest has also become something of a cause in Harlem.

Among other events, Hayden's allies organized a protest at the Manhattan Supreme Court on January 19, one of his court dates. The protest was attended by elected officials and activists. The board of the radio station WBAI, where Hayden was once a producer, passed a resolution in support of him.

In 2010, the NYPD, in a campaign touted by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as a key element in the war on crime, stopped more than 600,000 people throughout the city. From 2004 to 2009, police stopped 2.8 million people; the largest age group is males 15 to 19, following by males ages 20 to 24. Just 9 percent of the stops resulted in an arrest. And in 2011, the police were on pace for 686,000 stops—a new record.

In the 2010 Voice series "The NYPD Tapes," police supervisors in the 81st Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant order cops to make a quota of one or two stops per tour. Police Officer Adil Polanco, who was assigned to a Bronx precinct, said similarly that there was a stop-and-frisk quota there. If those orders are typical for most precincts—and that appears to be the case from the tapes and Polanco's statements—then quotas are a key factor in fueling the rise in stops.

Even so, Kelly has said repeatedly that the stops keep people from carrying weapons, drugs, and other illicit items on the street. He said it again most recently in a December 11 affidavit filed as part of a lawsuit: "Stops serve as a deterrent to criminal activity."

He has been backed on this by Mayor Bloomberg, the New York Post and Daily News editorial pages, and commentators including the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald, who tied the stops to the crime decline and declared that the campaign "saves minorities' lives."

And yet the campaign has spawned ongoing opposition not only from elected officials and activists but also from regular New Yorkers. Last September, police stopped and handcuffed Councilman Jumaane Williams and an associate at Brooklyn's West Indian Day Parade.

Williams raised a fuss, which led police spokesman Paul Browne to claim that someone had punched a police officer during the incident. Williams called that claim a "bald-faced lie," and Browne hasn't uttered another word about it since.

But aside from public opinion, there's a major cost to the campaign in actual dollars. Over the past couple of years, the number of lawsuits filed by New Yorkers alleging improper stop-and-frisks has continued to grow. There might be some element of lawyers seeing a new area in the always-busy police-litigation business, but the rise also indicates a frustration among New Yorkers with the practice.

In the month of January alone, more than three dozen lawsuits alleging improper stop-and-frisks were filed, based on a Voice reading of the complaints. Extrapolated, that means that the city could be sued more than 400 times this year alone just on improper stops.

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