Arrest prompts charges of racial profiling
WILKES-BARRE - Phillip Maurice Harvey is black. That's all Wilkes-Barre police needed to know, he says.
Harvey, a convicted drug dealer who spent nearly 20 of his 37 years in prison, acknowledges a troubled past but says he's paid his debt.
And, Harvey says, he didn't do anything to prompt officers to stop him around 3 p.m. Tuesday - other than being black on Academy Street.
"This was crazy. I don't even know what I did to deserve this," Harvey, of 40 Irving St., said in an interview Wednesday at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility. "You shouldn't just roll over on me because I'm black. That's how it looks."
Harvey is certainly not the first criminal defendant to claim racial profiling. But a police affidavit filed in court - charging the convicted felon with possessing heroin and a loaded pistol - backs up his account, indicating no grounds to stop Harvey other than he was black and walking in what police characterized as a "high drug and crime area."
Civil rights activists questioned the circumstances of his arrest.
"A black man walking down the street in a high drug area or a high crime area is not any kind of indication of reasonable suspicion," Mary Catherine Roper, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said Wednesday. "Stopping people as a prophylactic measure is not justified under the Fourth Amendment. We don't live in a country where any officer can stop you at any time and demand to know your business."
Chief: proactive policing, not racial profiling
Reached outside police headquarters Wednesday evening, Wilkes-Barre police Chief Gerard Dessoye appeared defensive and, in a terse exchange, said crime is up and that there have been seven homicides in Wilkes-Barre so far this year.
"Guys are out there risking their lives," Dessoye said, noting officers found Harvey with a gun and drugs.
Asked whether the officers knew that before they contacted Harvey, Dessoye walked into the station without answering.
Dessoye responded to additional questions via email through city spokeswoman Liza Prokop.
The department, he said, "does not do racial profiling."
"We have received citizen complaints that Academy and Irving is a high crime area and officers were assigned to assess those complaints and suppress criminal activity in that area if it exists," Dessoye said. "Standard operating procedure would be to conduct as many field interviews as possible in the area to determine what type of activity exists."
The Harvey stop started as a standard field interview and his "actions, answers and demeanor" during the conversation led the officers to arrest him, Dessoye said. Officers often identify suspects early in affidavits by race and gender before printing their names, Dessoye said, using the example: "Black Male 1, Black Male 2, White Male 1, Hispanic Male 1."
"With the recent influx of violent crimes in Wilkes-Barre, we are increasing the presence of our anti-crime unit in high crime areas of the City," Dessoye said. "Canvassing these areas may lead to the arrests of individuals involved in dangerous criminal activity, such as it did in this case."
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said she didn't know the specifics of Harvey's case but wasn't surprised police would approach someone on the street without cause.
"They were actually being more proactive - and that's rare for us to see because they don't typically have the time," Salavantis said. "I wouldn't say that it has anything to do with the color of his skin. I think it has to do with good police work and trying to be more proactive, because that's what the community's looking for."
A questionable stop and a checkered past
Court records show Harvey, originally of New York City, pleaded guilty to felony drug possession with intention to deliver in June 1999 in Lackawanna County and was sentenced to 20 to 60 months in prison.
Then, in November 2003, Harvey was one of 28 people indicted in Lackawanna County in "Operation Steamtown," which targeted a drug ring bringing up to $100,000 of drugs a week into the Scranton area. Harvey pleaded guilty to distributing crack cocaine in April 2005, according to court records, and was sentenced to 105 months in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release.
Whether officers knew any of that when they saw Harvey on Tuesday was unclear.
Harvey said they did not.
"I don't even know the cops' names," Harvey said. "I never seen them before in my life."
The police affidavit says Wilkes-Barre police officers Shane Yelland and Michael Boyle were on patrol near Academy Street and Irving Place when they saw Harvey walking.
"Officers observed a black male walking on Academy Street," the affidavit says. "The male turned onto Academy Street off Irving Place. Officers turned the vehicle around on River Street and in the area of Academy and Elder streets officers approached the black male."
Yelland got out of the car, the affidavit says, and asked Harvey, "How's it going?"
"Good," Harvey answered as he stopped walking.
Harvey says the officer asked him why he looked familiar, and he replied he couldn't look familiar, noting in the interview Wednesday that he moved to Wilkes-Barre last December after serving more than a decade in prison.
"I never even lived in Wilkes-Barre, so their story can't be true (that) I looked familiar," Harvey said.
The affidavit says Yelland asked if Harvey lived in the area, and Harvey walked toward the officer, saying he did and offered his address, according to the affidavit. Asked for identification, Harvey told Yelland it was at his house and he would have to go get it, but he identified himself by his correct name and birthday, the affidavit says.
Harvey said he asked the officers why they stopped him, and one said it was because of his tattoos - Harvey has a large pistol inked onto the outside of each calf.
"When I read the affidavit, I was like, 'This is crazy,'" Harvey said. "I did nothing to deserve this. I was minding my own business."
The affidavit says Harvey got nervous, beginning to breathe heavy and avoid eye contact. Yelland wrote that he could see Harvey's carotid artery "pulsating rapidly."
According to the affidavit, Harvey appeared "so nervous" that Yelland changed his stance so his service weapon was farther from Harvey. Around that time, the affidavit says, Yelland noticed a bulge in Harvey's waistband - a Rock Island Armory .45-caliber pistol.
The officers searched Harvey, the affidavit says, and found $391 in cash, a cellphone and an undisclosed quantity of heroin in his pockets, along with the gun. Harvey denies possessing any contraband.
Police subsequently obtained a warrant to search Harvey's apartment and found two boxes of ammunition, a plastic bag of heroin, a digital scale and drug packaging materials, according to the affidavit.
During the stop, according to the affidavit, Harvey told police he was on federal supervised release for a drug conviction. A records check found Harvey had an active arrest warrant and police took him into custody, the affidavit says. Harvey disputed that he was a wanted man, saying he only owed a fine in New Jersey. Police, in the affidavit, didn't specify what the warrant was for.
Investigators charged him with possession of a firearm as a felon and possession of heroin with the intent to deliver. Magisterial District Judge Michael G. Dotzel arraigned Harvey on Wednesday morning and set his bail at $50,000. He scheduled a preliminary hearing for 10 a.m., Aug. 6.
Concern in a community troubled by police tactics
Ronald L. Felton, president of the Wilkes-Barre chapter of the NAACP, said the available facts about Harvey's initial contact with police were troublesome.
"Just walking down the street, that could be any one of us," Felton said. "I'm hoping that just the fact of his color alone was not the justification for them stopping him."
He said he believes racial profiling "absolutely" does occur in Wilkes-Barre and that he has tried to address it with Dessoye before.
"When people come to me and bring these issues before me, I do go and I meet with him," Felton said. "But in the end if I don't have something to kind of tilt the tables in my favor, it's going to be their word against the officers.'"