Starting this month, the Columbus Police Department is putting a greater emphasis on serving outstanding warrants on subjects who are in violation of the law. This includes the numerous criminal warrants that have not been served and people who are in contempt of court in regard to unpaid fines. The word, fines, is purposely italicized because it is important to remember that these are people who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to pay their fines. These are individuals who are ignoring their punishment, for whatever infraction they have committed.
Over time, it is easy for people to believe that having a fine due is “no big deal”; however, it is a complete disregard for the legal system. At our press conference on Feb. 1, Mayor Robert Smith and I made it clear that we were encouraging people to come in and pay their fines so that amnesty would be given. The City Council is also fully behind this offer. This is, without a doubt, a fair proposal. Very few jurisdictions give a person the opportunity to come pay their fines and costs and have the contempt charge dropped. This is truly an example of how the city of Columbus is willing to go the “extra mile” to help its citizens.
As I write this article, the city has over 2,600 outstanding warrants. This is unacceptable and unfair to the thousands of citizens who have willingly paid their fines. The reality is that people should not be rewarded for walking away from their responsibilities. It is a shame that so many of our citizens feel no regard for their personal responsibilities. This initiative to collect unpaid fines and serve other criminal warrants is long overdue.
The amnesty period runs until April 30, 2010; however, if the Columbus Police Department picks an individual up (whether at work, home or wherever) and they are arrested, there will be no amnesty given and they will be tried on the contempt charge. Again, the emphasis is for the person to take the responsibility to come to the Court Division and pay their fines. This is the easiest way for anyone to avoid the embarrassment and inconvenience of going to jail.
It is also important to recognize that this problem will not be corrected overnight. The Columbus Police Department will make an effort to address this problem daily. Under the direction of Capt. Paul Short, the Reserve Officer Program will be making warrant service a part of their standard operating procedure, and the Department is moving toward having a regular warrant service unit. These corrective measures will help control the number of warrants that get back logged in the system and also help the Court Division purge any warrants that have been cleared by other means.
Often during the discussions of warrants, people have asked about a “total” monetary amount that can be collected. That is a difficult number to gauge, but it is important to note that as the initiative moves forward, both the Police Department and Court Division can begin to give an accurate account of what has been collected, what can be collected, and what warrants were cleared by other means. Until the city is given an opportunity to do that, it would be unfair to make an assumption of how much money can be collected.
On a personal note: I am not driven by how much or how little money may or may not be collected. The Columbus Police Department is driven by the fact that we have an element of our community that appears, at least at face value, not to care about the legal system, and this can never be a good situation. It is never OK to disregard what a judge or any other legal official has ordered you to do. Consequently, the Columbus Police Department will make every effort to serve all warrants they have in their possession. This is the fair and correct thing to do.
It is imperative for the citizens of Columbus to understand that this is not just a “flash in the pan” idea that the Police Department will soon forget; this is just the beginning of a new way of doing business. Over the next several months, there will be additional changes in store for our department. This is just the first of many.
St. John is the Columbus Police Chief. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.