Keeshan Harley has been stopped by police since he was 13 – an everyday occurrence for black men in the US. The problem, he says, is a once-vaunted program that has led police to ‘target and instill fear in’ young men of color
On an ordinary evening last November, Keeshan Harley left his mother’s walk-up apartment in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and headed to his weekly volunteer-cop watch patrol in nearby Bushwick. He was equipped with a backpack crammed with two handheld video cameras, know-your-rights pamphlets, and flyers advertising an upcoming protest on Staten Island for the late Eric Garner. He also made sure to keep a low profile.
As he turned the block, however, there was an ever-familiar sight: two NYPD officers hopping out of their unmarked navy blue Chevrolet Impala. Within seconds, Harley was in handcuffs.
“Where you going? What’s your name?” yelled the officer. As Harley, 20, presented his ID, the cop knew he had his man. Harley hadn’t committed a crime; instead, he says, the officers upset over his activist work deliberately targeted him.
“I was identified and targeted,” said Harley. “Not because I did something wrong; the purpose was to instill fear in me.”
The experience was painfully normal for Harley, who says that NYPD officers began stopping and frisking him when he was just 13 years old. He estimates that since then, he has been stopped roughly 125 times.
In 2013, I made a documentary on Harley’s ordeal with the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk program that, for better or worse, would become the hallmark of former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. I caught up with him 18 months later. His profile as an anti-police brutality activist has substantially grown in the last year: in addition to interviews with the LA Times and the Nation magazine and an appearance in a high-profile documentary with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Harley has attended resistance rallies in Ferguson, Missouri, and addressed thousands at November’s protest on Staten Island demanding an end to what he said was the NYPD’s “criminalization of young men of color”.
In Bill de Blasio’s New York, Harley says the mayor’s promise to voters that he would eliminate stop and frisk and reform the troubled NYPD has fallen on deaf ears.“I have not seen any change or shift in tactics since [Bill] Bratton took over,” says Harley, referring to De Blasio’s handpicked commissioner for the NYPD. “He’s the father of ‘broken windows’ – there’s been no change, no shift.”
Harley’s critique of the NYPD’s “broken windows” policy is ubiquitous in the city’s minority neighborhoods, which have often felt the brunt of the NYPD’s sometimes-unconstitutional tactics to combat crime.
Professors George L Kelling and James Q Wilson first unveiled the theory – which essentially states that to bring down the overall crime rate officers must aggressively pursue petty crimes to deter more serious ones – in a 1982 essay in the Atlantic magazine. Bratton has championed the policy for over two decades in various positions: as chief of the New York City transit police, commissioner of the Boston police department, commissioner of the NYPD under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, chief of the Los Angeles police department, and now again commissioner in New York City.
Critics say the practice has resulted in the over-policing of minority communities and mass incarceration of young men of color for relatively minor offenses. For minister Kirsten John Foy, north-east regional director for the civil rights organization the National Action Network, the policy is the culmination of decades of misguided criminal justice and public safety policy to address essentially what is an economic issue: poverty.
“Instead of fixing a broken window, you have criminalized those who live in those communities,” said Foy. “It’s a very dangerous policy; it slowly dehumanizes a community.”
Bratton adopted the broken windows policy in the 1990s as Mayor Giuliani’s police commissioner in what appeared to be an experiment as much about policing as it was about economic development. Cleaning up Times Square in midtown Manhattan was first priority, and was a wild success. City Hall then began looking to transfer the policy to the city’s poorer, underdeveloped neighborhoods as a means to increase property values.
If crime statistics fell with aggressive policing, the argument went, developers could make the case to prospective buyers that the neighborhood was now safe to live in and open for business. Gentrification, says Foy, then became about “creating the conditions for that development to happen in communities of color”.
Just a few blocks from Harley’s home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, along Ralph Avenue, gentrification is in plain view. A corner artisanal shop sells local handmade designs; a new burger joint advertises $10 gourmet burgers on its outdoor menus; and young patrons sip $4 lattes at a hip, independent coffeeshop nearby. On street corners, there are relatively few if any police officers manning foot patrols, as was a constant sight during the Bloomberg years. To the untrained eye, this traditionally poor and crime-ridden section of the neighborhood appears to be on the rise.
“It’s all a façade,” says Harley. “The mayor says ‘stop and frisk’ is over and now we’re all going to enjoy the fruits of economic development together. The truth is that now there are more unmarked police cars, plainclothes officers, and cops still target young men who look like me.”
For Harley and so many young men of color, this criminalization has real and damaging effects on their lives. An arrest on an individual’s record for not cooperating with an officer who stops him without pretext could potentially lead to years of unemployment. A young person’s family could be evicted from public housing because of it. A university could deny a student a scholarship or need-based financial aid because of a petty crime on his record.
“It’s ruining the lives of people in this community that deserve the dignity to go about their lives and seek out opportunities to better themselves,” said Harley.
For his part, De Blasio made police reforms a centerpiece of his first year in office. The mayor appointed an independent inspector general to oversee the NYPD, sought to restore the public’s trust in the department and dramatically cut back the stop-and-frisk program, which many consider the linchpin of “broken windows”. According to the NYPD, there were 38,456 stops in New York City in the first three quarters of 2014. In 2011, at the height of the practice, there were 685,724 stops.
John A Eterno, a retired New York City police captain and professor of criminal justice at Molloy College, says reforms come down to more than just numbers and will take time. The recent, well-documented quarrels between the mayor and the NYPD, he says, are just one example of the scale of the challenge.
“I do think that this mayor and commissioner Bratton are committed to ending the abuses of the past administration,” said Eterno. “Under Bloomberg, we saw 12 years of unconstitutional police policies in neighborhoods across the city. To change that culture [in the NYPD] is going to take a paradigm shift.”