Harlem residents who had been summoned to court for small offenses like littering or disorderly conduct had a chance to clear their records at an event last Saturday, which organizers said would prevent minor summonses from ruining offenders’ job prospects or causing their arrests.
The event, known as “Clean Slate,” was the third event of its kind in New York City and the first one in Manhattan.
“A lot of the time, they are afraid to go down to the police to get it straightened out because they could get arrested, or they are afraid to work because of their record,” Derrick Haynes, a local non-violence advocate, said in an interview before the event. “It’s a good thing that they can get it taken care of.”
At the event, at the Soul Saving Station Church at West 124th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, locals could clear their records of minor offenses or receive free legal advice from lawyers, without fear of arrest.
The event was organized by the Manhattan District Attorney, the Office of Court Administration, and the Legal Aid Society.
“Open warrants can affect the warrant holder’s immigration status and even his or her ability to get a job or enlist in the armed forces,” said District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. at a press conference last week for the event.
Minor offenses can become serious problems if the accused do not come to court on the dates assigned to them, according to Vance. Forgotten fines can result in an open warrant for arrest.
Although one of the key promises of this event was that attendees would not be arrested, some attendees said that they were suspicious of its intentions.
“My brother told me I shouldn’t even come down here today,” said one attendee, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of arrest. “He said it might be a trap, and they might arrest me anyway.”
The event comes as the city continues to respond to ongoing nationwide protests of police brutality and racial inequality in law enforcement.
Last summer, the NYPD implemented “community policing” programs in four precincts, including two in Upper Manhattan. By integrating into the community, officers are able to stop criminal activity sooner and solve other problems in the community before they escalate.
According to Haynes, especially in Harlem, there is a lot of mistrust between police and community members.
“The relationship between the police and Harlem is really bad right now,” Haynes said. “But this is a good thing. I am happy to see the DA’s office do something positive.”
Haynes said that amnesty events are a step in the right direction, but added that he wants to continue to see the police make a greater effort to rebuild relationships with the public.
“This needs to be a more-than-one-day event,” Haynes said. “It needs to be more consistent, like twice a year. Young men and women need to be able to call the police and make an appointment to get their record expunged and get it taken care of.”
Coordinators of “Clean Slate” used the event to promote other social programs and services.
Seson Adams, a volunteer for New York City public advocate Letitia “Tish” James, said that giving residents a fresh start in the legal system and educating them about available resources can improve their lives and relations between individuals and the community.
“People don’t only leave with a clean slate, but also with resources and a new knowledge of services available to them,” he said.