They were retired firefighters on their way home after a late night, stopping to take a surreptitious leak. Landscape workers caught with open containers. Bike riders on the sidewalk, litterers, spitters, possessors of marijuana, walkers of leashless dogs.
Committers of low-level offenses, they became recipients of summonses. Those summonses, unanswered, turned into warrants for arrests. But this weekend the Brooklyn district attorney's office and the NYPD offered the chance for a fresh start.
On Saturday, Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Bed-Stuy was a one-stop-shop for resolving summonses for low-level offenses. As the movie "John Q" screened quietly at the front of the church, dozens of people waited on wooden pews for the chance to clear their record.
It was the third and final "Begin again" event of the year. All told, the program cleared more than 1,600 outstanding warrants, 336 on Saturday.
It's a good start, but there are still more than a million outstanding summons warrants citywide — which is a decent indication of the focus on quality-of-life offenses so prevalent in NYC policing.
Outstanding warrants have become a key issue in tensions between police and minority communities.
Walter Scott, the South Carolina man who was fatally shot in the back on video, was first stopped for a broken tail-light. He had an outstanding arrest warrant stemming from unpaid child support — one reason he may have tried to run from the police. A Department of Justice report found that Ferguson, Missouri issued tickets and summonses to generate revenue, drawing low-level offenders into a downward spiral.
Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson has been a strong supporter of amnesty initiatives like "Begin again;" his office also sponsored a gun buyback last weekend. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has held similar "Clean Slate" events, and the district attorneys in Staten Island and the Bronx have signaled their intention to follow suit.
Once a warrant is issued, Thompson notes, any future contact with law enforcement "will result in handcuffs" — good if the person is a criminal, problematic for otherwise law-abiding folks who are caught committing a little offense. This exacerbates tensions with police. While Police Commissioner William Bratton has spoken of a "peace dividend" from less antagonistic policing, quality-of-life focus remains the modus operandi of the NYPD.
In the interest of justice
In Bed-Stuy, community organizations and the NYPD came together for 2015's final "Begin again."
After speaking to Legal Aid Society lawyers, the petitioners walked up to a makeshift courtroom on the church's second floor.
Next to a church poster listing "The ABCs of Salvation" (A: "Admit that we are sinners") the prosecution rummaged through papers and repeated the same phrase.
"The People move to dismiss in the interest of justice."
"This case is dismissed, the warrant is vacated," responded the judge. "Good luck to you."
The warrant-free individual would then exit the room, out into the bright sunlight where there were offers of free food, a blue DA tote bag and health insurance sign-up vans.
Germaine Cherry, 46, a hairdresser, received her summons from smoking a cigarette in front of her building, where she was "letting off steam." Because there had been safety issues in the area, cops were frequently on patrol. They gave her a summons for blocking the entrance. She forgot about the ticket for a few months. So, here she was.
"First and last time," she says.
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