Liberty Takes A Holiday In Occupied Trinidad
Another brutally hot night on Montello Avenue NE, and the front porches are full of people hoping for a breeze that never comes -- and then it does, in the form of fleets of D.C. police, whizzing by on bicycles, in patrol cars, aboard vans and trucks, a virtual army of officers. All here to fight crime by encircling the residents of Trinidad in something called a Neighborhood Safety Zone, better known through history as a ghetto.
Night falls, and the checkpoint is set up. Metal barricades block the streets leading into the neighborhood just east of Gallaudet University. Yellow police tape cordons off the alleyways. Officers check the identity of every driver who seeks entry to the area.
A list of "legitimate reasons" for entering the zone allows in Trinidad residents, as well as those who work there or are visiting relatives (if they can prove it.) Want to visit a friend? Sorry. Just out for a drive? Forget it.
In the few days since Mayor Adrian Fenty and Police Chief Cathy Lanier announced the checkpoint tactic, no one has been shot to death in Trinidad. In the eyes of D.C. leaders, this somehow qualifies as both accomplishment and justification.
But to those who live in the police district around Trinidad, where a spike in murders this year left 22 people dead and culminated 12 days ago in a triple homicide, the cordoning-off of their neighborhood feels more like an occupation than a helping hand.
Residents ask Lanier why she imposed the checkpoint without so much as a community meeting. The chief replies that time was of the essence and here she is, ready to answer questions.
But something is off about the timing: Lanier calls this a hurried and nimble response to a crime crisis, but the city's apparently permanent interim attorney general, Peter Nickles, tells me the tactic has been carefully crafted.
"We started looking at this six to eight weeks ago as an extraordinary remedy," Nickles says. "We wrote orders and revised them again and again."
Revisions were necessary because federal prosecutors raised questions about the constitutionality of checkpoints. After all, although an appeals court approved a New York City police checkpoint designed to deter drive-by shootings, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 in 2000 that a narcotics checkpoint in Indianapolis was unconstitutional because it was aimed at uncovering "evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing" rather than targeting specific people suspected of being bad guys.
Which category do Washington's checkpoints fall into? They're not dragnets staged to catch a particular person or gang. They're meant to stop any gunslinging drug guys from driving into the area to settle a score.
"The court is always going to look to see the importance of what you're trying to attack and how directly your solution addresses that problem," says Brad Weinsheimer, chief of the Superior Court division of the U.S. attorney's office. He says prosecutors were "supportive of the District's desire to be creative and do what they could to combat the ongoing homicide crisis."
But two men who ordinarily find themselves on opposite sides of law enforcement issues -- the head of the D.C. police union, Kris Baumann, and the legal director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, Art Spitzer -- agree that the checkpoints unconstitutionally infringe on our freedom to move about and that they create the aura of taking action but don't much interfere with the thug life.
"We end up bothering the good people of the world," Baumann says. "It's a PR move."
Spitzer notes that homicides are actually relatively flat citywide in recent years, though there's been a big jump this year in that part of Northeast. "The sad answer is that there may be nothing that prevents crime in a crowded urban area in the summertime," he says.
Most worrisome is what looks like a pattern in which Fenty and Nickles attempt to combat crime by restricting liberties. First, it was the plan to create a central network monitoring more than 5,000 surveillance cameras controlled by various city agencies. By itself, that sounded cumbersome and Big Brotherish, but not unconstitutional. Then came the notion of having police go door-to-door asking residents if they'd let officers search their homes for guns. Now the checkpoints.
The camera and gun plans are being altered because of howls of protest, but Nickles insists that "we're not testing the edge at all. These are things that make sense, that have been tried in other jurisdictions. I think it's a very exaggerated notion to say we are Baghdad on the Potomac."
The late-night spectacle of dozens of officers fanning out over more than 20 blocks attracts quite a crowd, stealing eyeballs from Leno and Letterman. The Constitution takes another blow, the residents of Trinidad learn anew just what their city thinks of them, and the politicians declare victory as another night passes without a shooting.
And then the police trucks return to collect the barricades and the streets belong once again to the sullen young men on the corners.
Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
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