D.C. Seeks Consent To Search for Guns
Thursday, March 13, 2008
D.C. police are so eager to get guns out of the city that they're offering amnesty to people who allow officers to come into their homes and get the weapons.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier announced yesterday the Safe Homes Initiative, aimed at parents and guardians who know or suspect that their children or other relatives have guns. Under the deal, police target areas hit by violence and seek adults who let them search their homes for guns, with no risk of arrest. The offer also applies to drugs that turn up during the searches, police said.
The program is scheduled to start March 24 in the Washington Highlands area of Southeast Washington. Officers will go door-to-door seeking permission to search homes for weapons. Police later plan to visit other areas, including sections of Columbia Heights in Northwest and Eckington in Northeast.
"If we come across illegal contraband, we will confiscate it," Lanier said. "But amnesty means amnesty. We're trying to get guns and drugs off the street."
Fenty (D) and Lanier announced the plan as part of a new strategy to deal with the prevalence of firearms in a city that has one of the strictest gun control laws in the nation. The Supreme Court will hear arguments next week in a case challenging the constitutionality of the D.C. law.
Residents who agree to the searches will be asked to sign consent forms. If guns are found, they will be tested to determine whether they were used in crimes. If the results are positive, police will launch investigations, which could lead to charges.
Boston police are embarking on a similar program this month. Police in that city have been meeting with residents before the door-to-door effort begins. Philadelphia police are considering such an initiative.
Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association, questioned the Washington effort. As a lifelong D.C. resident and a former police officer, he said, he would not consent to his house being searched.
"They haven't earned that level of access or respect from the community," Hampton said. "I just can't believe they're trying to do that. I've never heard of anything like that in my life."
Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the program is "a very bad idea." He said officers might act so aggressively that residents feel coerced into letting them in.
"It sends the message to the public that the police ought to be able to search your house anytime for any reason," Spitzer said. "People will be intimidated. That cheapens civil liberties and privacy for everyone."
At a news conference, Fenty and Lanier also said police will host monthly meetings with other law enforcement agencies to identify trends in gun-related crimes and to facilitate information sharing. The goal is to identify repeat offenders and find new ways to stop them, Lanier said.
"It should give us a much clearer picture of how to coordinate our efforts," she said.
Police also announced the creation of an anonymous hotline for people to call with information about crimes. The line, 888-919-CRIME, is staffed by detectives. In the coming weeks, the department is planning to set up a system through which the public can send tips as text messages.
"We want to make sure the community has every means necessary to get in touch with us," Lanier said.