Fugitive Safe Surrender programs let people wanted for non-violent offenses turn themselves in at a church. The planning required for the July 2016 Milwaukee event is extensive, but the results could be remarkable, if they mirror what other cities have experienced.
As many as 50,000 fugitives have peacefully surrendered across the county since communities began offering the program a decade ago.
Pete Elliott came up with the idea of giving fugitives a safe place to surrender while agonizing over the death of the Cleveland police officer. “Wayne (Leon) was shot by a fugitive on the run; shot in the head and killed,” Elliott says.
Elloitt, a U.S. Marshall in Ohio, says the officer had pulled over a driver for a traffic violation, not knowing the person was wanted. “When people are on the run and there’s a warrant issued for their arrest, they’re desperate, and desperate people commit desperate acts with tragic consequences,” he says.
Elliott wondered whether letting non-violent offenders turn themselves in at a place where they feel supported would remove the desperation. Leaders in Cleveland agreed to test his theory. They essentially converted a church into a courthouse for a few days and spread the word.
“You may not have to go to jail. Come to Mount Zion Church, where you can speak with a lawyer, meet with a judge and clear your warrant,” said an ad that organizers ran.
Elloitt’s idea has worked in thousands of cases. For instance, over four-days in Cleveland, more than 7,000 fugitives surrendered – some had been running for decades. He says a line started forming outside at three in the morning.
"We’ve had people who’ve walked through the doors of the church were able to get their warrants lifted and literally run out the door, waving a piece of paper like they had just won the lottery,” Elliott says.
He emphasizes that safe surrender is not amnesty. Judges still decide what actions the person must take to put themselves back in good standing. Yet Ohio Judge Joan Synenberg told a church gathering there that voluntarily surrendering can mean reduced penalties.
“When you come forward to accept the consequences, my office responds favorably,” Synenberg offered.
Organizers of successful Safe Surrender programs say the crucial ingredient is trusted clergy – the ministers present to people at birth, marriage and death. They have to sell the program and remain present throughout. For instance, in Akron, Ohio, Pastor Herman Matherson hosted a program at this church.
“This is not a trick. What we say is what will happen,” Matherson told his congregation.
Here in Milwaukee, Rev. Willie Brisco is taking a lead role.
“What the public needs to know is that this is coming, and it could be a huge difference in the lives of a lot of people in our community who live in the shadows. There are people who have fines and warrants that they think they will never be able to get out from under, so they refuse to try to go get jobs. This is a common sense, spiritual way of letting people know that we aren’t just about punishment, about retribution. We’re about restoration and recovery and that one crime or mistake should not impact your life forever,” Brisco says.
Brisco says he recognizes the challenges and delicacies involved in weaving together a Safe Surrender program. First, the logistics - finding a church with the capacity to serve as a criminal justice center for a few days; then getting everyone from police to judges to public defenders to take part, and finally, convincing people on the run to trust the program.
Fugitive Safe Surrender founder Pete Elliott says sometimes they're prodded by loved ones and watch from the parking lot.
"Typically, on the first day, you see the least amount of people. On the last day, you see the most, because a lot of it is still about word of mouth and trust," Elliott says.
According to Elliott, it is impossible to quantify how many violent confrontations have not occurred involving fugitives, police and community members, due to the program. One person who turned himself in when the window opened in Philadelphia is James Williams.
“It was a very positive and very emotional experience because I never knew a church and law enforcement community to link up that before,” Williams told NPR.
Each community tailors its own plan. Some have brought in driver’s license services and job placement agencies.
Planning is underway in Milwaukee to offer a Safe Surrender program in July 2016. Among the organizers are MICAH, or Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope, and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
MICAH estimates that upwards of 50,000 Milwaukee residents have arrest warrants for non-violent offenses including low-level drug crimes, burglary and unpaid traffic fines.