MEGAN THOMPSON: On a Saturday morning in December, a crowd waits outside the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. Hundreds more pack the sanctuary inside. They’re seeking forgiveness — not from a higher power — but from New York City’s criminal justice system. The event – is called “Begin Again.” The purpose: clear arrest warrants stemming from low-level crimes.
TONY DILLION: I’m here to clear up a past warrant that I had for trespassing.
EDWIN ALMESTICA: There’s nothing worse than walking around the city and having a cloud hanging over your head.
MEGAN THOMPSON: New York City has 1.4 Million open arrest warrants for unresolved summonses dating back to the 1980’s. None are for serious or violent crimes. They’re for “quality of life” offenses like loitering, public urination, walking a dog without a leash, or being in a park after dark.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson — no relation to this reporter — started “Begin Again” last year to reduce the public’s distrust and fear of law enforcement… and to ease the punitive burden these warrants can have.
KENNETH THOMPSON, BROOKLYN DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Warrants never go away. So, when people apply for jobs, they come up in background checks. It could affect someone’s application for citizenship. It could affect someone’s ability to get housing. So, there are real consequences to outstanding warrants. We need to deal with this crisis, this staggering number of outstanding summons warrants. We have to deal with that now.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Between 2003 and 2013, New York City police issued more than 6 million summonses for low level crimes – in a city of about 8.4 million people. When issued a summons, a person must appear in court on a specific day and time, and usually ends up paying a fine ranging from 25 to 250 dollars. But nearly 40 percent of people issued a summons fail to appear in court, resulting in a judge automatically issuing an arrest warrant. Thompson says that doesn’t make sense for low-level crimes.
KENNETH THOMPSON: Once a bench warrant is issued for someone’s arrest, that police officer who comes into contact with the person who has the warrant has no discretion. That officer must arrest that person and put them through the system. The person who’s stopped may resist arrest or flee because of that outstanding warrant. And so, we are unnecessarily putting our police officers in peril.
MEGAN THOMPSON: 27-year-old Malcolm Richards came to “Begin Again” to clear a warrant for an unpaid open container summons he received for drinking a beer in a park.
MALCOLM RICHARDS: And I don’t want to call my job and tell them I’m in jail for this.
MEGAN THOMPSON: The first stop: the church basement, filled with attorneys and paralegals from the Legal Aid Society in a makeshift courtroom in the church attic, a judge hears the from the prosecutors and defendants’ attorneys. In just a few minutes, defendants like Richards may learn whether their warrants are cleared.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Programs like “Begin Again” have sprung up in recent years across the U.S., from Tulsa to St. Louis to Atlanta…clearing tens of thousands of warrants, and helping ease the burden on the courts. In New York, critics say the summonses that lead to warrants disproportionately affect poor and minority communities, which are often also the most heavily policed. A New York Civil Liberties Union analysis found more than 80 percent of summonses went to blacks and hispanics.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Malcolm Richards grew up in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods. He got his first summons at 16, when, he says, he was unlocking his bicycle one evening after leaving an after-school program.
MALCOLM RICHARDS: I got on my bike and a cop came out of nowhere, and he was like, “Hey, you can’t be in here after dark.”
MEGAN THOMPSON: The officer issued him a summons that carried a fine.
MALCOLM RICHARDS: My mom is a single mom. So, she can’t really just say, “Hey, here’s money. Go pay it.” So, I didn’t have the money to go pay the ticket. So, that’s why it turned into a warrant. And then I forgot about it.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Three years later, Richards snuck his brother through a subway turnstile with him…without paying the fare. An officer caught them and ran Richards’ name through a police database.
MALCOLM RICHARDS: And the next thing you know, a cop car pulled up, and he was like, “Hey, you’re going to have to go down with us.” And I was like, “What for?” And he said, “You have a warrant for your arrest.” And my brother was crying outside the police car while I’m sitting behind there, I’m crying, too.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Richards spent 24 hours in jail.
MALCOLM RICHARDS: The experience was horrible. I would never want to go through it again.
MEGAN THOMPSON: But it did almost happen again. In 2014, a police officer issued him that open container summons. Richards says he was unemployed at the time and couldn’t afford the 25 dollar fine.
MEGAN THOMPSON: You did know, though, that you were breaking the law by drinking in a park, right?
MALCOLM RICHARDS: Yeah.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Even though you’d had this pretty terrible experience when you were 19, being put into Central Booking for 24 hours, you still didn’t take care of the ticket this time around.
MALCOLM RICHARDS: No.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Did you consider going down and just explaining to the court, “Hey, I can’t pay right now?”
MALCOLM RICHARDS: I thought about it, but I’m like if I do that, I feel like I’m going to get booked.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Police reform advocates allege the large number of open arrest warrants may stem in part from quotas for summonses, tickets, and arrests. Such quotas are illegal in New York State, but some New York Police Officers say they still exist.
ADHYL POLANCO: At the end of the day, it’s quota, numbers, quota.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Adhyl Polanco, in his 11th year on the force, is one of a dozen officers who have filed a lawsuit alleging the NYPD uses a quota system for arrests and summonses. The lawsuit alleges officers have been subjected for years to quotas such as “20 and 1” — 20 summonses and one arrest per month — for years.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Polanco says the pressure to produce them has eased since Mayor Bill De Blasio took office two years ago and appointed Bill Bratton as Commissioner….But he feels judged on numbers and little else.
ADHYL POLANCO: You cannot say that you ran to the hospital with a kid that was not breathing and-and that you separated a fight here, and you helped this person there. That doesn’t cut it. They need summonses. They need arrests.
MEGAN THOMPSON: City attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the suit, because, they say, it is “devoid of factual allegations.”
JAMES O’NEILL: There’s no quota system in the NYPD. Is there an expectation, as a New York City Police Officer, that you take summary action when you need to? Absolutely.
MEGAN THOMPSON: James O’Neill is the NYPD’s Chief of Department, the highest ranking uniformed position under Commissioner Bratton. He points out, the number of citywide summonses has declined. Between 2013 and 2014, they dropped from 439-thousand to 369-thousand, or about 16%. Summonses declined another 17-and-a-half percent last year. O’Neill says that’s because the department now emphasizes officers using more discretion.
JAMES O’NEILL: It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. We were for many years, a numbers-driven organization. We still have to be driven by some numbers, and those are the crime numbers. So if we’re out there locking up people not involved, or giving summonses to people not involved, that does cause resentment.
MEGAN THOMPSON: O’Neill says the police department is talking with city council members about possibly decriminalizing some low-level offenses. But he says the ability to issue a summons for quality of life violations is still an important tool.
JAMES O’NEILL: I think it’s important to have the option. Sometimes when you’re dealing with a situation, you need to have that tool available to make sure that people understand that, if this behavior does not get better, if it’s not corrected, you could end up in criminal court with a summons or even possibly arrest them.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson says he’s not focusing on NYPD tactics, but why more than a million summonses have lapsed into warrants.
KENNETH THOMPSON: So, if you have a childcare issue, let’s say one of your children is sick, or you can’t take off from work, because you’ll lose your job, or someone in your family passed away the night before, if you don’t show up for any reason, a bench warrant is issued for your arrest. And I believe a warrant should be issued for someone who refuses to come to court, not someone who can’t come to court.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Reforms are on the way. The city will soon allow people to appear any time a week in advance of their summons court appearance, and keep some courts open until 8pm. A re-designed summons form will highlight a person’s assigned court date and time more clearly…as well as the consequences for not showing up.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Thompson wants all of New York City to hold “Begin Again” events. He says they hold people accountable, even though most fines are forgiven when an arrest warrant is cleared.
KENNETH THOMPSON: It’s not a blanket amnesty program. You don’t go to bed one night with a warrant and wake up and the warrant is gone. You have to show up. You have to go before a judge.
MEGAN THOMPSON: So far, the District Attorney has cleared more than 16-hundred warrants. Malcolm Richards’ case was one of them.
JUDGE: Both of these matters are dismissed at this time. Your two warrants are vacated. Good luck to you, sir.
MALCOLM RICHARDS: I feel good that I don’t have these warrants over my head.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Malcolm Richards is thankful he can move forward with a clean slate. He recently started working at a hospital doing building maintenance and pledges that if he ever gets a summons again, he’ll take care of it right away.