Video by Jessica Leibowitz

You've seen them on the 11 o'clock news, on bulletin boards at the post office, and maybe even on this very site. Even with the ubiquity of surveillance cameras around the city, the NYPD still relies on forensic artists who have been trained to work with victims and sketch images of their attackers.

And that includes Detective Jason Harvey, a 16-year veteran of the force who has been with the artist unit for over a decade. But Harvey and his fellow artist-officers (there are three total) aren't your typical cops—it's clear that Harvey takes his artistic work as seriously as his police work: "I consider myself more an artist than an officer," he told us last month at his first gallery opening in the Meatpacking District.

Harvey's exhibit, Fantasy Composites, is on view at Fort Gansevoort through January 10th, 2016, and it's a fitting way to continue a career which started at the Ringling School of Art and Design, rather than the police academy. This show, organized by Fort Gansevoort founder Adam Shopkorn and filmmaker Josh Safdie, features renderings of fictional subjects, but the techniques he applied are rooted in his profession.

Harvey first came to NYC after college to pursue his art, but ended up up joining the NYPD. "I didn’t want an office job, I was scared of having an office job," he said. "I wanted to do something that was going to make a difference in some way or another. I didn’t want my time to not mean anything."

So after five years working the beat for the 32nd Precinct in Harlem, Harvey applied for a spot in the exclusive artist's division. "I don’t do it for galleries, but I do it for myself," Harvey said of his drawings outside the police station. "I have a large body of work that I make for myself. That’s what I came to New York to do. At this point it’s finding time to do it. It’s difficult because I have the demands of my day job...It would be nice to have more time for it, but I do what I can."

Harvey drawing a sketch

As Harvey explains it, the process of talking to victims—of getting them to trust and open up after potentially traumatic experiences—is the key to what his unit does. He brings up the imperfection of memory several times throughout our conversation, and the carefulness officers must use in talking to civilians. He typically spends at least two-to-three hours on any given picture (which could involved multiple sketches): "It starts with an interview and then there’s a phase where we work with photographs," Harvey said. "From there we’ll put together a composite. We’ll show it to the witness and they’ll tell us what things look good and what things don’t look good and we’ll make adjustments and work together to push it as close as we can possibly get it."

In recent years, he's had his caseload cut down because of the prevalence of cameras ("Video is always a stronger form of evidence than a sketch; a sketch is an art."), but he is also tasked with "skull reconstructions, we do postmortem reconstructions, we do age progressions and we also enhance video with drawings sometimes."

Nevertheless, there are some strange cases that only his unit can tackle: "There was one a few years back where a woman wore a cat mask and that was a strange request," Harvey said, referring to a female suspect who robbed an Arche shoe store at Astor Place in 2010, inspiring the sketch below. "It was interesting because I guess when it was being described it was made out of a coarse material, crude, and you couldn’t really see her face. It was an interesting drawing."


Harvey's first gallery show was sparked by director Josh Safdie, who had been following Harvey's work via the NYPD's Twitter. "Josh was telling me, 'Yeah, we grew up in the city and we always noticed your sketches,'" Harvey said, noting he's still wrapping his head around the idea that he has fans. "It’s weird to think because I always thought I was just making something for the department and I didn't think at all about [other] people looking at these drawings."

Because Harvey wasn't allowed to use the sketches he made for the NYPD—they're evidence, after all—the theme of "fantasy compositions" was born. "And that seemed to work because they’re not tied to a real case, they’re fantasy drawings," he explained. "It was fun because when I’m at work I’m tied to a victim or witness’s memory and I have to strictly adhere to that. But here, I could be more creative so it was fun for me to do."

To get a better idea of what the process is like for victims, we asked Harvey to sketch someone famous for us, based on our descriptions from memory—you can see the results of that in the video up above.

Safdie brought Harvey's work to his friend Adam Shopkorn's attention, and he in turn invited Harvey to put on an exhibit at Fort Gansevoort. "I love the way Jason draws hair," Shopkorn said. "I think he’s really able to be extremely creative with the way he does hair."

"It’s funny in a way—it’s like he’s being commissioned by the NYPD to do what he does so well, but here it was more imaginative," Shopkorn said of Fantasy Composites, which includes 26 different characters.

"We see them on lamp posts, light posts, we see photocopies of the original drawings with tape around them and images on television of the work so you never actually see the work itself," he added. "Perhaps that’s a reason that one doesn’t consider them to be art. But forensic art is its own type of art."

Fort Gansevoort is located at 5 Ninth Avenue in the Meatpacking District. It's open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. FYI, around the corner is Fort Gansevoort BBQ.

Also, if the subject of Harvey's sketch in the video—or someone that knows him—is interested in acquiring the piece, feel free to contact us at