Lessons on warrant reform from Ferguson
Trymaine Lee: It's a deeply painful reality that it often takes a tragedy to start a conversation around reform in this country. We heard talk about stand your ground after Trayvon Martin was killed, talk to curbing police choke holds after Eric Garner, and demands for transparency around body cam footage after police shot Laquan McDonald 16 times.
Sometimes these conversations are just that, a lotta talk. But other times they lead to actual reform. So when police killed two Black men last month one thing stuck out to me. In both incidents police were attempting to serve arrest warrants.
On April 21st, sheriff's deputies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina shot and killed 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr. While serving a warrant for his arrest on drug charges. And 10 days earlier, 20-year-old Dante Wright was shot and killed by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
It started as a traffic stop for expired tags that escalated when officers tried to arrest Wright for a warrant because of a missed court date and two misdemeanor charges. The officer said she mistook her gun for a taser. In both cases, an arrest warrant ended in death. In both cases, calls for reform. Last week Minnesota lawmakers began the process of trying to answer those calls.
Archival Recording: Representatives Samantha Vang and Jamie Long have a bill that would allow judges to issue sign and release warrants for misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. A motorist with this type of warrant would sign a form acknowledging an upcoming court date rather than being arrested on the spot.
Lee: Under this bill, police would've never tried to arrest Dante Wright. He might still be alive.
Blake Strode: We've seen it over and over and over again. A warrant isn't just a piece of paper. It's something that can actually have mortal consequences, particularly for Black people.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this Into America. Today, how warrants are used to police Black communities and why activists say warrant reform is a crucial part of the conversation around justice. To tell this story of what reform could and should look like we're going to the epicenter of warrant reform in this country: Ferguson, Missouri.
Experts say it's impossible to calculate how many arrest warrants are issued nationally each year, but it's likely in the millions. They're typically tracked at the county level. And perhaps no place has done more work to reduce their numbers than St. Louis County, Missouri, home to Ferguson.
Strode: I'm a St. Louis native, born and raised. Grew up kind of crossing over all sorts of lines we have here in St. Louis, that, you know. But it's very much segmented by race and class.
Lee: That's Blake Strode. Blake is now the executive director of Arch City Defenders, a legal advocacy organization based in the St. Louis area that has been part of the fight for warrant reform from day one.
Strode: I left after high school to go to college and-- eventually law school. Many years later I sort of came to understand that many of the issues we wrestle with in St. Louis are at the core of some of our biggest national challenges.
Lee: We caught up outside on a park bench not far from West Florissant Avenue, which was really the center of protests after Michael Brown Jr. was killed by police in August of 2014. During that long, hot summer Blake was home about to leave for his last year in law school.
Strode: That's when the Ferguson uprising happened, as I was going into my third year. I was home on the day Michael Brown was killed on August 9th, 2014 and two days later was on my back to-- to law school. And so I watched that sort of play out from a distance, coming back home occasionally. And it became clear to me that really in many ways St. Louis and the entire region is kind of ground zero for so many of the social justice, racial justice causes that I care about that animate me in my work.
Lee: Wow. So you're going into your third year of law school when Mike Brown is killed. And, you know, I was here a few days later. And the temperature on the ground was so hot, right? And I'll never forget the emotional heat. But how did that shape you and your approach towards this work? I can only imagine what that must have done to you. This is home.
Strode: For all the-- the talk around the Michael Brown case, what he was actually initially stopped for was manner of walking, right, was jay-walking. As I was sort, like many other folks, sort of watching and digesting what was happening at the epicenter of the uprising, that was literally, like, you know, a couple miles down the road from, like, my childhood home where I grew up.
And so as the discussion sort of developed around policing and over-policing and traffic enforcement and fines and fees, so many of those themes resonated deeply as somebody that grew up-- it felt like a very normal thing here. Like, "You know, we careful when you drive on this part of 170 or f you're going down this street because everybody knows cops are gonna stop you.
"They're gonna look to give you a ticket. If you have a warrant out of course they're gonna take you to jail." You know, I came from a family where we were lucky enough to be able to pay tickets off. And so nobody was ever hauled off to jail for warrants.
But that was just such a known thing. And so it was so easy to understand why people were so outraged and so fed up because the daily abuses that people suffer here are so great that when you sort of see it laid bare in that way. You know, the rage that was sort of (WIND) simmering already when that fuse was lit was, you know, a long time in the making.
Lee: Thinkin' to the Dante Wright killing, where a police officer put a bullet and then said that, you know, she mistook her gun for a taser. What was your initial reaction?
Strode: Well, it's all too familiar. It's all too common. I mean, we've represented people who have been stopped and taken and arrested for everything from a busted tail light to literally a women who had a ticket because her trash lid was improperly secured to her trash can. (LAUGH)
Lee: That's ridiculous.
Strode: You know, tinted windows, all sorts of things. The over-policing means that people are more likely to be stopped. The fact that they're stopped means they're more likely to be run for warrants. The warrant means they're more likely to be searched, which might lead to more charges.
The fact that you're charged once means you're less likely to get a job, which means you're more likely to be engaged in something that's gonna land you back in the system. It really is just this cycle from which people can't possibly escape because it was designed for people not to be able to escape it.
So a story like Dante Wright's just reflects what everyday life looks like for so many people. Black people and especially the, you know, Black poor and Black working class. It's a sort of under-class of Black folks in America that are treated with suspicion at all times--
Lee: Yeah. It seems like the warrant is also a tool, a key to get access to these individuals.
Strode: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Lee: Talk to us about the use of warrants as, you know, a police tool of access.
Strode: Yeah. Warrants are such a critical piece of the criminal legal architecture that drives so much of the contact between police and civilians. And in Black communities in particular, the rates at which people are subjected to arrest at any given moment are just astoundingly high.
There's so many statistics post-Ferguson that are sort of wild, but one of them that I always remember is the St. Louis region is about 1.3 million people. And at the time that Michael Brown was killed there were 700,000 warrants for arrest in the St. Louis region. In a city like Ferguson, which is between 20,000 and 22,000 people, there were 33,000 warrants for arrest--
Lee: More warrants than people.
Strode: More warrants than people. So when you dig into the numbers of where these warrants are issued they are always disproportionately in Black communities, in poorer communities, in Brown communities. And so you literally have entire neighborhoods where huge percentages of people, at any given moment, if they come into contact with police, are just subjected to police violence, to search, to arrest. It's not a bug of a system. It really is a feature that is driving so much of the contact between police, between courts, between prosecutors and Black folks and poor folks in America.
Lee: For those that don't know, how do warrants actually work?
Strode: So the fourth amendment requires for any search or seizure that there be a warrant issued by what's called oath or affirmation with probable cause. So the basic way that this works is police want to arrest Blake Strobe because they think he committed a, let's say, stealing offense.
They would get an oath or affirmation of probable cause, take it to a court, judge signs the warrant, and that warrant means that the police officer can go arrest Blake Strobe, bring him into custody to face these charges. Now many, many times that's not at all what this looks like.
You know, sometimes people are arrested without warrants and then they go seek probable cause determination afterwards. But the more common version, and what we see especially at the hyper-local municipal level is this kind of automated processing of warrants at extremely high levels. So one of the things that has become really consistent is you have municipal staff-like court clerks that are quite literally stamping--
Lee: Rubber stamping.
Strode: Literally rubber stamping these tickets, converting them into warrants, subjecting again thousands of people to arrest if they come into contact with police. And that has nothing to do with public safety or get dangerous people off the streets.
It's just about, again, that mechanism of social control. Because people drive around for weeks or months or years at a time sometimes with active warrants, sometimes don't even know they have it because they're sent to the wrong address, you know, the processes are so sort of inefficient and ineffective.
It really is just a massive kinda catch and release scheme, where people are being brought into custody, often times as a means of collecting revenue in the form of fines and fees, and then released again to kinda start the same process over again.
Lee: And what we've learned from Ferguson, and the big DOJ report that really just pulled the lid off of this entire city, showed complicity between the police department and municipalities. Speak to the kind of financial incentive to just put the burden of, you know, balancing the budget on the backs of Black and poor people.
Strode: Yeah. I mean, that was a big part of the Ferguson story, right? And I put Ferguson in quotes because we know that there are so many Fergusons, not just in St. Louis but all over the country. But a big part of that story, and one version of what this looks like is communities or cities, municipalities like Ferguson, actually relying on municipal court revenues to fund their cities, to fund city services.
Just like we talk about the number of warrants that was astronomically high, that corresponds to very high numbers of tickets that are issued, very high municipal court revenues. And so you literally have cities funding themselves on the backs of poor Black folks.
That's one version that we see in many places like Ferguson that have lower tax bases all over the country. There is this other version that I think is really important. 'Cause people will look at some places and say, "Well, they don't need, you know, the revenue. They're not relying on this for revenues."
But you still see the same kind of over-policing of Black folks in particular. And there's really no way to understand and explain that, other than to understand policing as this tool of racial and social control, which it has of course long been in America.
And when you strip away the kind of need to fund city services there's still this need that (LAUGH) is carried out through police to control (BIRDS) Black people and how they move through society, that there's always this kind of insistence that people know their place and know who's in charge.
Lee: And most of the time. I'd have to imagine, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but most of the time it's not for some wild violent offense, right? We're talkin' about everything from what to what? Like, what are people gettin' warrants for?
Strode: There's been a lot of good data analysis about this in recent years. And most of the studies I've seen place the percentage of warrants that are issued for quote/unquote nonviolent crimes, which in itself is sort of a fallacy, you know? We draw this line between violent and nonviolent.
But even accepting those terms, 94% to 98%, depending on the study you look at, of warrants and arrests, it's for everything from loitering to traffic tickets to a trash can (LAUGH) to, you know, anything. And that's actually what the system is doing the vast majority of the time. So much of this I think is also about wrapping our minds around the gap between what we think the system is doing most of the time and what it's actually doing.
Lee: Coming up, what warrant reform actually looked like in the city of Ferguson and the lessons they have for other cities. We'll be right back.
Lee: We're back with Blake Strode, executive director of Arch City Defenders. After Mike Brown was killed in 2014, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into Ferguson's police department and municipal courts. A year later they issued a scathing report that found widespread patterns of civil rights abuses and racial bias.
That's how the warrant system came under fire. The killing of Mike Brown, which to be clear, had nothing to do with arrest warrants, actually exposed a lot of the practices that Blake and I have been talkin' about. The report led to outrage and some reforms. You heard Blake mention earlier that back in 2013 Ferguson's courts issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants. In 2019 Blake says they issued fewer than 4,000.
Strode: Part of the reason that you see the drop in warrants you've seen is because it's been a somewhat unusual coming together of events post-Ferguson. (ENGINE) We actually had a policy paper come out right after that sort of framed this issue of warrants actually and the over-abundance of warrants in the region.
You had the Department of Justice come in and eventually enter into a consent decree with the city of Ferguson that has had ramifications for the whole region. We had legislation called SB5 at the time that set a cap, that has since been raised again, but set a cap on municipal court revenues and put other constraints on how municipal courts and municipal police are allowed to operate in the region.
And most importantly I think the-- the people of this region have been engaged and organized around these issue and holding systems more accountable. And so when we look at some of the 60%, 70%, 80%, even 90% drops in warrants in various municipalities throughout the St. Louis region that has been really hard-fought and has been a result of all of those efforts including, I would like to think, our litigation and our clients that have come forward to bring that litigation have also put really significant pressure on municipalities to keep those numbers down.
Lee: We also saw the withdraw of certain warrants, right? Walk me through the whole warrant withdrawal situation.
Strode: I mean, this has happened in a really patchwork fashion that sometimes you will see warrant forgiveness clinics for example that a municipality or a city might set up a day or a couple of days where people can come. If you have an active warrant you can come to a certain location or you can call in or you can go online and provide some information and be provided a new court date and the warrant is recalled.
So of course that's good for someone that then doesn't have to move through life with the risk of being sent to jail at any moment in time. But it does mean that the case still is pending, that there's still a court date someone has to show up to.
If for any reason they can't do that, or if they get something they can't pay, they're right back in the same situation. So a lot of times the forgiveness is sort of temporary. And it's a band-aid that doesn't address the longer-term issue.
And it doesn't really get to the heart of why these warrants are being produced in the first place, how they were produced, the process through which the warrants were approved by the court. We are still at what should be pretty shocking and unacceptable levels. And it kind of avoids some of those bigger questions.
Lee: Blake says the number of warrants issued in Ferguson has actually ticked back up in recent years. That's proof to him that people need to keep up the pressure and a reminder that true reform remains a challenge.
Strode: You know, when you think about the fact that there's 21,000 people here, 4,000 warrants, that's still a really (LAUGH) high rate of people that are subjected to arrest every year, you know? It shouldn't be normal that a fifth of the population I subjected to arrest and being caged.
People are still being ticketed regularly. There are some places that still are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars every year from municipal court revenues. And so instead we have seen, in my mind, tepid reforms that do things like set caps on revenues and say that you can't jail people because they can't pay fines and fees, which are really obvious sort of steps to take, but not ultimately the solution to resolve these bigger structural issues that we're facing.
Lee: When engaging with the system on these issue and trying to get the system itself to change, what works? Is it moral? Or is it out and out just pressure and bodies in the streets and noise? Or do you actually reach them and say, like, "Look, at this system? It doesn't work for this reason, that reason, that reason"? Like, what works in havin' this kind of dialogue?
Strode: I'm a big believer in pressure. I think there has to be pressure from all sides at all times. So, you know, I applaud the people that are in the streets. You know, there's a kind of disdain that a certain class of people talks about protesters with that, you know, "Why don't they have a clearer policy agenda," or something like that.
I think that's absurd. The only time that we see these systems actually make adjustments responsive to the needs of marginalized people is when people are in the streets, is when people are very uncomfortable. Our way of taking the fight to the system really is through litigation.
It's through developing campaigns with our partners. We've developed campaigns with partners to close a local jail, to defund police, to re-envision what housing justice really looks like and treating housing as a human right in this region.
That's what excites me is the idea of actually building something that is transformative, which we certainly don't do alone, but we work very closely with organizers, with activists, with our clients in helping to support them in building their own leadership and driving a new vision for St. Louis.
Lee: Certainly this conversation will be had in Minnesota now, you know, hand-wringing over what to do about their warrant situation and their policies and programs. If they're considering reforms, what lessons would you have for them coming out of the experience of Ferguson and St. Louis?
Strode: I think the lesson is we really have to look at root causes. And I think you have to ask the question of what the system is doing in the first place. So when you see a system that is mass-producing warrants, what is that about? Is it about public safety?
And if not, what is it about? And is that what you want a system to be doing? And if not, then the inquiry shouldn't be, "How do we make this more effective or more efficient or, you know, have more procedural checks." The inquiry should be, "How do we dismantle this thing and replace it with something that actually serves us, that actually keeps us safe?"
I think we don't have nearly enough appetite for that kind of structural conversation. So I would encourage anyone across the country that is thinking about how to reduce the level of contact between police and civilians, how to make it less likely that someone like Dante Wright would ever be placed at this kind of mortal risk, that you really have to lean into those kind of root cause questions and center the well-being of marginalized people in those questions.
Because the people that are always going to be hurt are always those that are most marginalized. I am a believer that Ferguson, and certainly incidents prior too, but the Ferguson uprising, central to it, sparked something all over the globe and certainly all over this country and gave people the courage to sort of stand up against some of these systems and make clear that we don't need sort of more efficiencies.
We need transformation. We've come to identify as an abolitionist organization. And this conversation around abolition and what that means and what we need to build in order to actually have safety in our communities and have people feel a sense of real community well-being is what should animate all of our public policy, as opposed to thinking about containing violence that is being really mass-produced by mass rates of poverty.
Lee: In this kind of abolitionist framework, do warrants have a place? Is there ever a space for a warrant and someone to be arrested on a warrant?
Strode: Yeah. I think it's a fair question. For me it feels impossible to answer in our context. Because it's impossible to strip warrants away from the rest of the carceral infrastructure. So I think at minimum we should think about it as a pretty extreme circumstance in which we are allowing someone to be sort of ripped out of their lives and off the street and locked in a cage, which is precisely what a warrant does, and in which we're actually putting someone at direct contact with law enforcement that we know can have these deadly consequences.
We've seen it over and over and over again. A warrant isn't just a piece of paper. It's something that can actually have mortal consequences, particularly for Black people. So I think we should assume that those should only be issued in the rarest of circumstances.
Lee: Let's end on a brighter note. What are you (LAUGH) feeling good about. In terms of reform, in terms of the fight, are we in a good place or is there no silver lining? Is it still just, like, the muck and mire of the fight?
Strode: No. It feels to me like there's a growing number of people that are expanding our kind of collective horizons around what real safety and justice and repair looks like. So the kind of big picture answer to me, which is why we've moved so much into this space around working with organizers and pushing forward toward a more transformative vision, is to just really reduce the contact between police and everyday people. So I think we have to push, push, push on that front even more. But, you know, I am made more hopeful by some of the folks that I see in the fight and that are pushing for that kind of expanded horizon.
Lee: Well, brother, thank you very much, man. We're out here in this park in Ferguson. So excuse all the ambient noise, but this was a great conversation to have, man--
Strode: Yeah, I--
Lee: --an important one--
Strode: --really enjoyed it--
Lee: --one to have. So thank you very much.
Strode: Thank you very much.
Lee: Blake Shelton (SIC) is the executive director of Arch City Defenders. You can tweet me at Trymaine Lee. That's @Trymainelee, my full name. Or write to us at email@example.com. That was intoamerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I dot com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.