The Brooklyn DA is helping clear the records of people charged with extremely minor "quality of life" offenses like having a bike on the sidewalk, or spitting.
New Yorkers line up to get outstanding arrest warrants cleared in Brooklyn. Photos by Jason Bergman
I'd arrived a bit early at the subway station down the street and figured I might as well take my time getting there. After all, government-sponsored events tend to move slowly at first and pick up later on. But even a half-hour before the scheduled start time of 9 AM, a line curled down the block of brownstones, leading up to the side door of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The people waiting in the hot Friday sun were for the most part black men, many of them in their teens or 20s. They had another thing in common: All of them were here because they wanted to avoid ending up in handcuffs.
In anticipation of Father's Day, the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office hosted a two-day initiative called " Operation Begin Again," in partnership with the NYPD and the city courts. The idea was pretty simple: If you had committed a "quality of life" crime in the past—like having a bike on the sidewalk, carrying around an open container of booze, or spitting—and hadn't paid the fine or appeared in court for a summons, you could plead guilty and have your resulting warrant for arrest cleared. You'd still have to pay the fine, but you wouldn't be immediately detained should you have another run-in with the cops for, say, walking a dog without a leash. All New Yorkers were welcome.
Operation Begin Again is the latest attempt by Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson to clear the overflowing rosters of the New York City courthouses, some of which remain open until 1 AM just to stay on top of the constant stream of arrests. It dovetails with recent reform measures, proposed by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, that would decriminalize some of the offenses at the center of broken windows policing, which emphasizes cracking down on minor offenses in order to prevent major crimes like murder. Early in his tenure, Thompson also softened his borough's policy on marijuana arrests—an idea that has since been formally adopted citywide by the mayor and the police commissioner.
As of last month, there are about 1.2 million open arrest warrants in New York City, and what I saw on this block in Brooklyn—where nearly 260,000 warrants are outstanding, according to Thompson—was a very small slice of that. The sheer volume of offenders is arguably a direct result of broken windows policing, and now city officials are apparently ready to vent some steam from an overloaded criminal justice system.
The line stayed long throughout the morning as more people joined it; volunteers went up and down fielding questions. The church was effectively turned into a court (reporters weren't allowed inside) with a vestibule upstairs set aside for legal aid. The entire street was barricaded off for the event, almost like a block party, and a hodgepodge of organizations like the NYPD, the US Army, the Fortune Society, and the Vera Institute for Justice had set up stands.
I spoke with people who had come from as far as Harlem to get their warrants cleared. To them, this was easier and cheaper than going to court, since a court date generally means getting a day off from work. Most were in and out of the church in about 20 minutes, and the process was made simpler by the fact that people could simply hand over their IDs and ask lawyers to search their records for them.
Harrison Williams, 62, said he seemed to get booked for a ticket on a superfluous crime every year or so, despite having worked for the city's Parks Department for 37 years. "It's like they gave my picture to the rookie cops or something," Williams, an African American and Brooklyn native, said. "You'd have a beer closed in a bag, and the cop will give you a summons for an open container. It's like, 'But you opened it! Come on, man!'
"We're a target," he continued. "You can't win."
Others were even more vocal, lambasting the law enforcement officials who had set up a stand for community relations just within earshot. "We don't have money to pay for this," a man named John, who refused to give his last name, angrily told me. "They target our type of low-income neighborhoods to balance their books"—a reference to the alleged quota system used by the NYPD—"because we're not a liability. We don't have any credit."
Another man, Eddy M., 52, asked me: "Who wants to always walk the streets with the fear of being arrested and tossed in jail? This is to get the police off of our backs."
A spokesperson for the Brooklyn DA's Office, Charisma Troiano, told me over the phone later that afternoon that nearly 270 individuals were cleared of warrants on Friday. To get a sense of proportion, that's about .02 percent of the citywide total. On Monday, Troiano said that over the entire weekend, some 1,000 people showed up, and nearly 670 warrants were vacated.
This was just the first of several sessions for Operation Begin Again; the next one will come in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood that has one of the highest crime rates in all of New York. They're considering setting up shop at synagogues and mosques as well.
The initiative, Troiano said, is a win-win for all parties involved. "It helps keep Brooklynites safe," she told me. "Some of them are unable to trek down to court to take care of it. And when you have these minor offenses, you put law enforcement in situations that could escalate. Instead, it lets the police concentrate on bigger offenses."
This logic has recently been used by Police Commissioner William Bratton, who, in an interview with the Associated Press last month, said the sheer number of New Yorkers with warrants doesn't help anyone. "It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog," he said. "It's not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there."
In terms of solutions, Bratton has teased easing up his signature broken windows policy by either offering amnesty to some people with outstanding warrants or having officers give citizens a warning first, rather than a ticket. Elizabeth Glazer, the director of Mayor Bill de Blasio's Office of Criminal Justice, has said in the past that the administration is looking into "how to safely reduce the number of already outstanding warrants in this city." (In related news, a spokesperson from the Mayor's office told me that 25 percent of the backlog for notoriously delayed Rikers Island cases have been cleared in two months, thanks to a new fast-track program called Justice Reboot.)
"It's just another unnecessary case the judge has to see," Troiano, the Brooklyn DA's spokeswoman, added. She brought up another issue: Outstanding warrants are a major obstacle for those seeking student loans, citizenship, and, maybe most importantly, employment. If you were given a ticket ten years ago for something as minor as a noise complaint and never paid it, your outstanding warrant comes up "as a violation on background checks," she said.
This initiative could start to change that, which most of the people I spoke to said was one of the primary reasons the line was so long: They had a tough time getting jobs because of their pasts. Basically, there are 1.2 million New Yorkers walking around with a ticking job-application time bomb.
"It's a stain on your past," Brian, a 30-something African American man who declined to give his last name, told me after his warrant was cleared. "Inside, the people are going through different processes, depending on their tickets, but most of the guys I saw in there were looking for jobs. They needed jobs."
In 2001, Brian said he was given a ticket for having a bike on the train—a punishment for a "crime" that, in today's Brooklyn, seems absolutely asinine. For years, he would receive a letter in the mail every few months, telling him that he had to pay up or face an outstanding warrant. After a while, he threw out the receipt from the ticket and forgot about the letters, simply because he couldn't believe he had to pay for something so trivial.
Others had similar stories and expressed frustration at having to deal with such petty BS.
"This is stuff you can't really avoid," Troy Cuallo, an 18-year-old who was there to clear a year-old ticket for walking through a park past dark with his bike, told me after leaving the church. "If you wanted to close the park, why didn't you? Instead of just standing there and waiting for me to come along. It makes no sense.
"I just refused to pay that," he continued. "How are you protecting and serving me?"
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