It wouldn’t seem too unusual for someone in the urban neighborhood of York, Pennsylvania to walk by the Bible Tabernacle Christian Center (known as BT in the community) on a hot day in July, and assume by the filled parking lot and lines waiting to get in that a viewing or funeral for a distinguished, long-term resident or community leader was what brought out hundreds of people to the church on South Pine Street. However, the large presence of the York County Sheriffs Office and the WellSpan HealthConnect mobile unit parked adjacent to the church indicated that on this day, something else was going on.
Operation Clean Slate was inspired by the U.S. Marshals Service’s Fugitive Safe Surrender project, which provides fugitives with the opportunity to voluntarily come to a safe location, meet with a District Attorney, and have their case heard by a judge in hopes of getting a second chance to clear their conscience and their name. The local initiative came about when a long time member and lay ministry leader of the congregation, provided Pastor Carl Scott with an article about the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Safe Surrender initiative and expressed a sincere desire to see her church get involved in community outreach. What they came up with was Operation Clean Slate. This neighborhood version of the U.S. Marshals’ project provided a neutral setting that those in the community were familiar with and a promise of leniency for those who chose to surrender voluntarily. The Sheriff’s department mailed out approximately 1,400 letters (in both English and Spanish) to residents who had outstanding warrants, encouraging them to turn themselves in rather than have the Sheriff’s department pick them up. Even with this personal effort made by the department, many initially feared that this was a sting operation, and that it wasn’t possible that they could be given a second chance. The phone in Pastor Scott’s office rang continuously, with parents, grandparents, and individuals with warrants calling to verify the actual opportunity.
Once individuals arrived at the church, they were greeted by a sheriff who explained the need for safety for everyone, prior to entering the sanctuary. They were scanned and then allowed to enter the building. Each person was asked to fill out a card with their name, birth date, and social security number. They were also presented with a voluntary survey. The sanctuary was used as a massive waiting area. The audio visual ministry at the church played inspirational songs and video clips on their large screens that seemed to help everyone awaiting their “day in court” be a bit less stressed. A long row of tables at the back of the sanctuary were filled with community information and resources and manned by staff who could answer questions. As names were called, community residents went into the “fellowship hall” where stations were set up to process them, beginning with a one-on-one interview and screening for additional warrants with a Deputy Sheriff. If they needed to meet with other offices of the court, in order to pay fines or discuss an issue prior to meeting with a judge, they merely had to approach that specific station. A small seating area was arranged where people sat until their case was called, at which time they approached a small area where the judges (in robes) sat. (The first day of the operation, only one judge participated, but due to the overwhelming response, three judges assisted on day two.)
Throughout the day at BT, volunteers from the church assisted guests in navigating the building and oversaw a classroom for kids to interact safely. Members from a local Catholic church staffed the church’s kitchen where they provided pizza, sweets, drinks, and snacks for all the workers who had volunteered their time.
In order to ensure a successful outcome for this type of collaborative effort, it takes the cooperation of several organizations, agencies, and media outlets. News radio 910 WSBA and News 21 were a significant part of the success of this initiative, along with many others. Although Lt. David M. Godfrey from the local Sheriff’s Department took the lead in this effort, other partners from the criminal justice system—such as York County Adult Probation and Parole, Pennsylvania State Police, Prothonotary, Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas, and the County District Attorney’s Office—all played key roles in ensuring that there were no gaps in the process. Just as important as the key players to the overall success of this project were the many staff members from the local government service providers, non-profits, and the York Council of Church’s—all who supported this initiative and agreed to help ensure its success by providing on-the-scene support services to anyone in need. Participants included: New Life for Girls, PA CareerLink, Catholic Harvest Food Pantry, Healthy York Network, Community Progress Council’s Foster Grandparent Program, York County Prison Treatment Services, York/Adams County Drug & Alcohol Program, and The Father’s Workshop of York County. Many of those who came in left in better spirits—freed from the burden of an outstanding warrant. For the few who were subject to arrest, they were quietly escorted out of the church and transported to confinement. In keeping with the overall tone of respect and dignity, none were handcuffed in the church, and all were assured that they would still be given favorable consideration for voluntarily turning themselves in.
Over the course of 2 days, a total of 450 people voluntarily surrendered to 986 outstanding warrants. As the project came to an end on the second day, the sanctuary was still filled with 115 individuals who were instructed by one of the judges to report on a specific date to the local court house to address their outstanding warrants with the same opportunity for favorable consideration. Over $10,000.00 was collected within these 2 days, with additional funds being paid through approved payment plans. The 986 warrants included 215 Court Of Common Pleas Bench Warrants and 771 District Magistrate Warrants. Twenty-four Felony Warrants, 87 Misdemeanor Warrants, and 735 Summary Warrants were cleared. Astoundingly, there were individuals who traveled from Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma who had received warrants in the past and never reconciled them prior to leaving the area. Their parents or family members had received the notice in the mail and convinced them that the time had come to take care of their longstanding issue with the courts.
This was undoubtedly a successful day for the church, local law enforcement, local government, and the community. When asked about what could be done to enhance this operation in the future, Lt. Godfrey noted that a printer and copier would have been a huge help, along with an IT specialist on the scene and additional personnel. Pastor Scott is looking forward to opening the doors of BT at least once a year to host this initiative, with the hope of also enhancing the church’s role to not only serve the community better, but also support local law enforcement efforts. To say the least, this was an incredible event that had a huge impact on helping to create and sustain a culture of trust between the local community and the police.
Linda R. Gist
Supervisory Senior Policy Analyst
The COPS Office
If you are interested in learning more about developing this type of initiative please feel free to contact Lt. David Godfrey at the Warrant & Training Division: 717-771-2496 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.