In the streets of his native Harlem, Joseph Hayden is a familiar presence, patrolling the neighborhood with his video camera, ready to document interactions between the police and the residents they stop – and doing so at an age when most people have retired.
A still from the video made by Mr. Hayden that he says prompted police retribution.
“Like I tell them,” Mr. Hayden, 71, said recently of the police, “I’m on your side to make sure there is courtesy, professionalism and respect. Isn’t that what you advertise on the side of your car?”
“Seems like you’d want me to do it,” he added, “unless what you’re providing is not courtesy, professionalism and respect.”
Mr. Hayden found himself on the receiving end of police scrutiny one evening last December, when he was arrested on charges of weapons possession after a traffic stop.
Mr. Hayden, known as Jazz, said that his arrest was the product of a “bogus stop and frisk,” and that it stemmed from his visible activism: he posts his videos on a Web site, All Things Harlem.
“Our work galvanized them to push back, which resulted in my arrest,” Mr. Hayden said as he drove his old Jeep through his neighborhood one afternoon.
As he fights to have the charges dropped, Mr. Hayden’s efforts have gathered support. There is an online petition with more than 2,000 names, as well as a letter-writing campaign to the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., whom Mr. Hayden interviewed for his Web site when Mr. Vance was running for election. There have also been rallies, the most recent held last week outside Mr. Vance’s office.
His supporters characterize him as a leader in the growing field of a certain brand of citizen journalism, whose practitioners post videos or offer live streaming of encounters involving the police.
“What Jazz is doing, it sparked this cop-watch thing,” said Christina Gonzalez, 25, a Harlem resident who, along with her partner, Matthew Swaye, has posted videos of police actions on YouTube. Their work led to their being characterized as “professional agitators” on a Police Department flier posted at the 30th Precinct station house in Harlem. “Even if my card is full or my camera is dead,” Ms. Gonzalez said, “I want officers to know they’re being watched.”
Mr. Hayden is a short, gray-bearded man with faint tattoos on his brawny arms.
He had a criminal history long before his current legal troubles. He was first convicted at 16 for heroin possession, and his other convictions include ones for manslaughter and laundering money for organized crime. But he said he believed that the pending charges stemmed from a video that he recorded one night outside the Seville Lounge in July 2011.
The video displays his usual journalistic style, which he concedes tends to be aggressive. In it, he peppers officers with questions as they search a car, with the two occupants standing by the curb: What had the occupants done to prompt the search? Had they been violent, or displayed any weapons?
Several times, Mr. Hayden lets the officers know, “Yeah, I got you,” aiming his camera into the glare of a police flashlight.
Mr. Hayden advises the driver not to give permission for the search, then resumes his commentary. “This is what Harlem has turned into,” he says, “an open-air prison. You can get stopped for anything.”
At some point, a man – Mr. Hayden said it was one of the officers – asks him: “You done selling drugs yet or what? I know your rap sheet.”
“You done abusing your authority?” Mr. Hayden spits back. The two trade barbs.
Months later, Mr. Hayden said, the same officers pulled him over at West 132nd Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. He said he was driving from Riverside Church, headed to his daughter’s home after a prison ministry meeting, when he saw flashing police lights.
“Hey, we know you,” Mr. Hayden said one of the officers told him. “Do you still sell drugs?”
Mr. Hayden said the officers eventually told him that a taillight was broken on his old Jeep, which Mr. Hayden disputes. The criminal complaint does not give a reason for the stop.
Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, said the police interest in Mr. Hayden “was far more pedestrian” than drugs.
“He was pulled over for a broken taillight,” Mr. Browne said in an e-mail. “Officers saw in plain view a wooden club in the rear of the auto and a switchblade knife in the center console where Hayden began to reach. He was removed from the auto and placed under arrest.”
Mr. Browne added that Mr. Hayden had 22 previous arrests, dating to November 1957, and noted his 12 years spent in prison for manslaughter in the death of a sanitation worker.
Mr. Hayden, who now lives in Yonkers, acknowledges his arrest record. “I’m not ashamed of anything in my life – nothing, absolutely nothing,” he said.
He also said his past bore no relevance to the man he is now. “I think Malcolm X said, there’s nothing wrong with being a criminal – it’s staying a criminal,” Mr. Hayden said.
Tatiana Nobels, second from right, took part in a rally on Thursday to urge the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., to end Mr. Hayden’s prosecution.
He was charged was two counts of criminal possession of a weapon, a third-degree felony. He spent the weekend in jail before his arraignment. Prosecutors proposed bail, but the judge released him on his own recognizance. The case goes before a grand jury on Thursday. If he is ultimately convicted, Mr. Hayden could spend two to seven years in prison.
The weapons in question, according to Mr. Hayden and his lawyer, Sarah Kunstler, were a souvenir small-scale baseball bat from a Yankees game, and a switchblade that Mr. Hayden said was the sort “you can buy at any 99-cent store in the country.”
In any case, Ms. Kunstler said, she is pressing for the case to be dismissed, “given Jazz’s prior history with this officer, and how this case arose.” She added that she now believed that the switchblade was no longer usable as evidence.
At a recent meeting in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, “the assistant spent five minutes fumbling with the knife,” Ms. Kunstler said, “and it became apparent that she couldn’t get it open.”
“There’s a mechanism that’s bent that prevents it from opening fluidly,” she explained.
“The screw in the knife fell out,” she said, “and we couldn’t open it anymore. It was broken, and it’s certainly more broken now.”
When asked about the knife, Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said, “We will decline comment.”
Mr. Hayden said he had already turned down a plea deal, in which he would have performed community service in exchange for admitting guilt to a lesser charge.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, man,” he said. “That’s what wrong with the system now.”