NJ Transit Cop in Atlantic City Says the System Wasn’t Working, So He Changed It
ATLANTIC CITY — Once a month at the NJ Transit bus terminal, locals who've been running from the law have a chance to get their warrants recalled temporarily and, in the process, access the services they may need to get themselves back on their feet and out of a miserable cycle of offenses, fines and excuses.
The program, which has helped about 1,300 people since May 2015, is the brainchild of an NJT police officer who realized arresting the same people over and over again wasn't an effective way to address citizens who need the most help.
During his patrols, Officer Gary Denamen would dress in plain clothes and experience for himself what it's like trying to get shelter, healthcare, food and other essentials when one's homeless — made much worse in the rain, snow or extreme heat.
So a one-stop shop was created with the help of Atlantic County Courts, Volunteers of America-Delaware Valley, AtlantiCare and CARE AC, a cross-sector, community coalition funded by New Jersey Health Initiatives, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
"What we decided to do was build a social services mall, with the courts in place," Denamen said. "What this does is allows individuals to come and get face time with the courts and not clog up the court system."
And as long as the person isn't showing up for a break every single month, their warrant is recalled, said Jill Houck, assistant trial court administrator for Superior Court of New Jersey-Atlantic County.
"Recalling these warrants enables that person to help themselves because they're excluded from a lot of social services if they have open court matters," Houck said.
Houck said the warrant recall events, located in a common place such as a bus terminal, serve as the "carrot" for getting help to those who may not otherwise be willing to seek it out.
"People are afraid to leave their homes," Houck said. "I've had people cry that they've had a warrant for the past 10 years and they've been terrified to leave their house or apply for a job."
The court system does not want to incarcerate people, Houck added. The cost just to process an inmate is $1,000, and then $89 every day after.
The 24-to-48-hour reprieve gives individuals the chance to enroll in services related to substance abuse, housing and other matters. It also offers enough time for a trip to the Motor Vehicle Commission if someone's in need of official identification — again, without the fear of being arrested.
The program can provide information to individuals on expungements, bail reform, pretrial intervention, child support and family court as well.
Denamen said the program has prompted similar efforts that are either underway or in the works in Mercer, Camden, Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties.
While the shot at a warrant recall comes only on the final Tuesday of each month, the effort to get in front of people who are down on their luck, and point them in the right direction, is a daily grind.
The Townsquare News Network joined Officer Denamen and Amanda Leese, of VOA-Delaware Valley, on an early morning trek through the city, hitting the "hot spots" where homeless people congregate (video above). A bus stop bench commonly serves as a bed, for example.
"There's different places and different depths under the boardwalk," Denamen said. "It may look like nothing to us, but blankets, all the garbage, that's back in there."
Engaging with these individuals around sunrise helps fill the gap between breakfast time at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission and 8 or 9 a.m. when local services open their doors.
"As the day goes on, we see different needs in the community," Leese said. "The morning is substance abuse and veterans' services. The afternoon, we see a lot more mental health cases that need assistance. And then later in the day you'll see substance abuse assistance needs pick up again."
Those willing to accept help — and accept Denamen as a good guy, not just a cop — can hitch a ride in one of the provided vans and receive immediate services at VOA's office on South Pennsylvania Avenue.
One program, Safe Return, serves individuals who have maxed out their prison sentences and are not under supervision. The other, the Navigational Resource Center, can help any homeless or vulnerable individual in Atlantic County.
Roughly 90 individuals are seen each day through the two programs.
"On average, for the Navigational Resource Center, we're able to get over 50 percent of those we refer to services actually linked to services," Leese said. "So it's not just about how many people you encounter on the streets and how many people you're able to refer; it's who actually goes and if they stay in those services."
Released in 2015 from Southern State Correctional Facility, Paris Amey III was handed a bus ticket but had nowhere to go. He picked Atlantic City, and is thankful he did so.
Through the power of VOA, Amey III received a place to stay in Egg Harbor City, plus $22,000 towards a year and a half of business school. He's now a certified medical assistant.
"Anything that I need to help me get established and to go forward, they were there," Amey III said. "I just can't say enough."