New York City residents have nearly 1.2 million open warrants for minor offenses such as littering, walking a dog without a leash or being in the park after dark. Now—in an effort to reset the troubled relationship between law enforcement and communities—the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office wants to wipe the slate clean.
“Having so many of those warrants also puts otherwise law-abiding people in jeopardy of sudden and unexpected arrest, where they could be put through the system, where they could spend a night or maybe a weekend in jail,” said Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson.
Thompson, speaking this week at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Brooklyn had begun a new program that offers individuals with open warrants the opportunity to meet with judges and have their warrants cleared and their cases closed.
The so-called “Begin Again” program was one of several highlighted as innovative examples of bridging the gulf between between justice authorities and communities around the country during the launch event for a yearlong initiative entitled “Bridging the Divide: Reimagining Police-Community Relations.”
The initiative, started by John Jay President Jeremy Travis, is aimed at exploring the causes of the widespread distrust of police in many of the nation’s poorest communities—and finding ways to bring both sides together.
“How is the world going to change?” asked Travis as he described the programs that will continue through the spring with discussions on community policing and at-risk communities, TED talks and student performances.
“It’s going to change only if we act on what we think is right.”
Thompson said that prosecutors who wanted to win their communities’ respect should first and foremost have “a commitment to do justice.”
In many counties around the U.S., the failure to pay fines or show up in court has generated an escalating burden on the poorest residents that some have called a hidden tax.
Since June, Brooklyn’s “Begin Again” program has hosted two events that brought prosecutors, judges and attorneys to local churches to meet with people who have warrants for low-level offenses. So far, they have cleared more than1,300 warrants.
Instead of misdemeanor marijuana cases, for instance, Thompson said police should focus their time and resources on gun violence, sexual assaults and other more serious crimes. His office has been working on preventing gun violence by cracking down on gun trafficking rings through a program called the Violent Criminal Enterprises.
In August, the Brooklyn DA’s office announced the 18-year sentence of a gun trafficker found guilty of transporting firearms from Georgia to Brooklyn, and selling as many as 150 to undercover officers.
And while excessive use of “stop and frisk” policies eroded the trust between communities and police, Thompson said he is not in favor of eliminating the practice altogether.
“We have to find the right balance,” he said.
The next “Bridging the Divide” event is scheduled for October 5, and will focus on the psychology of policing. Speakers include Andrew Costello, Deputy Inspector of the New York Police Department; Matthew Fogg, a retired Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal; and C. Jama Adams, chair of the Africana Studies Department at John Jay.
Other upcoming events through the fall will include:
- An October 7 performance by John Jay students which captures the “divide” between police and communities.
- A forum on the challenges of policing at-risk communities, including remarks by NYPD Deputy Commissioner Susan Herman and Juan Rivera, program director of the BronxWorks Homeless Outreach Team.
- A discussion with Washington Post columnist Radley Balko on November. 5 about his recent book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.
The event wraps up in May with a two-day conference. Read more about the initiative and event details HERE.
Alice Popovici is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.