A small crowd trickled into the Mount Hope Community Center on Saturday, Sept. 17, hoping for help. Some clutched wrinkled pink police tickets, many held white invitation letters, folded three times, at their chest. At the front door, the new Bronx District Attorney, Darcel Clark, spoke to the press.
“So many times the Bronx is left out of things,” Clark said. “But I’m just going to make sure we always get what we deserve.”
The event, called Another Chance, was the first low-level summons warrant forgiveness program in the Bronx. There have been two in Manhattan and four in Brooklyn.
The Bronx has not been left out when it comes to the number of quality-of-life violation tickets issued. According to the Department of Investigation, the police department has issued more low-level misdemeanor tickets in the Bronx than anywhere else in the city. Residents who attended the event frequently described the tickets they received as “unnecessary” and “ridiculous.”
The Office of Court Administration sent 2,500 summons letters to Bronx residents who have outstanding low-level crime tickets. The letters invited the holders to come to the event and clean up their records. Ticket holders without letters from the other four boroughs were also welcomed. About 500 people attended.
The District Attorney’s Office tried to make the event light-hearted and relaxed. A DJ stationed near the front door of the community center played a song with the lyrics “tonight is going to be a good night”. Ticket holders got free lunch boxes with soda, chips, and sandwiches after meeting the judges. There were tables with information about community resources, including health insurance.
The Legal Aid Society helped organized the event. Attorneys at the front door pre-checked the eligibility of ticket holders who came to the event, making sure people with criminal summonses would not meet the judges and inadvertently get arrested.
While several Legal Aid Society staff snapped cheerful group photos, the Bronx District Attorney Deputy Counsel Julian Bond O’Conner spoke about the event as a way to foster a “positive interaction with the legal system of the community.”
Bronx residents said they were relieved to clear their records. Romel Solano said he was having a bad day when he visited the 40th Precinct earlier this year. When a police officer ordered him to wait behind a line, Solano responded with a profanity and got a ticket.
“It was pretty unnecessary,” Solano said, about the summons.
Kevin Cuffee said he was with two other friends in a park after it closed, and he was issued a ticket for littering.
“I wasn’t even littering,” he said. “[The police officer] told me he’s just giving me a ticket because I was in the park after dark. It was a tiny park between the buildings. People sit there all the time.”
A man who said his name is Gustavo, but refused to give his last name, said he got a ticket for having an open container in public. He said he opened a beer after a day working at a store, when two police officers walked in.
“Haha we got lucky today,” Gustavo imitated the police as saying, before giving him a ticket.
By the end of the day, more than 500 people were given advice, 350 cases were resolved. No residents were arrested. But compared to similar events in Brooklyn, the number of warrants cleared in the Bronx was much lower. The Brooklyn events average more than 600 cases resolved each time.
“We would of course like to have many more people, and were prepared for that, but the turnout was good for a first event,” said Patrice O’Shaughnessey, from the district attorney’s office. “Since some of the warrants were years old, the people we sent the letter to may have moved away.”
The high rate of summons tickets in the Bronx is a byproduct of the “broken windows” policing strategy, initiated by former police Commissioner Bill Bratton. The effectiveness of the policy, which aims to lower the overall felony crime rate by excessively focusing on the issuing of low-level crime tickets, is controversial. According the Bronx District Attorney’s office, there are more than a million open low-level crime summonses in the city.
“The Bronx is over policed,” said Legal Aid Society Attorney Mary Peppito. “The NYPD seem to mainly focus on some areas.”
The Police Department has not responded to questions about the number of tickets issued in the Bronx.
An open summons or warrant could impede immigration, housing, or job applications. The Bronx District Attorney Office says it plans to hold the event again, hoping to have more residents come and clear their records and their worries.