By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008
D.C. police have scaled back plans to go door-to-door asking residents in high-crime neighborhoods whether officers can search their homes for guns as part of a new amnesty program aimed at getting weapons off the streets.
The Safe Homes program instead will be offered by appointment only at residents' request, said Chief Cathy L. Lanier.
The program was supposed to begin last month but was delayed after a backlash from residents, D.C. Council members and the American Civil Liberties Union. The critics said some residents could feel pressured or intimidated by officers asking to enter their homes.
Lanier joined Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) last month in announcing the program and saying that police would begin work March 24 in the Washington Highlands area of Southeast Washington. In hindsight, officials said, more details should have been worked out before the announcement was made.
"I should have realized that the program needed to go out with a whole lot more information," Lanier said. "I should have put it out with very clear facts."
The new start date is mid-June, which will give the department time to train officers to conduct the searches and gather more input from the community, Lanier said.
"We want it to be in full swing the entire summer," Lanier said.
The chief recently sent a four-page memo to members of the department explaining how the program will work. The memo said the mission is to "keep guns out of the hands of children." She said she also wants to help parents and grandparents who feel they have become like hostages in their own homes.
Safe Homes targets those who know or suspect that their children or other relatives have guns. It asks residents to call police, set up appointments for officers to visit and sign a consent-to-search form. Officers then would check the homes for guns, with no risk of immediate arrests. The amnesty offer also applies to drugs that turn up during the searches, police said.
Police plan to test guns recovered through the program to determine whether they can be linked to crimes. If so, police will launch investigations, which could lead to criminal charges.
Officers distributed some brochures outlining the program last week but conducted no searches. Starting next month, they plan to resume passing out the informational brochures in the three neighborhoods where the program will be launched -- Washington Highlands in Southeast, Columbia Heights in Northwest and Eckington in Northeast.
The searches will be performed by members of a team of 18 officers who have been trained to conduct them. They are mostly officers who walk beats or work in schools, with the idea that they would be familiar to many residents, Lanier said.
The D.C. Council is weighing in on the program, with Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), head of the public safety committee, holding a public hearing Monday at 5 p.m. Lanier is expected to testify.
"The way it was announced by the mayor, so little had been worked out, and people were free to imagine the most intimidating sort of interaction with police, which nobody wants," Mendelson said.
Johnny Barnes, executive director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area, said he was encouraged by Lanier's changes. Still, he said, there are better ways to get guns off the streets -- such as the successful police-sponsored gun buyback program, in which residents bring guns to a designated place on a certain day and turn them in for money.
"Why do we have to put at risk our fundamental constitutional rights?" Barnes said of Safe Homes.
The ACLU is partnering with the community group ACORN and others to sponsor a "training session" to educate people about their rights. The session will be at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at St. James Episcopal Church in Southeast Washington.
Participants plan to go into neighborhoods to pass out fliers that say, "Help people understand they can say NO." They also will pass out cards that residents can place in their windows that say, "NO CONSENT TO SEARCH OUR HOME. This home protected by the United States Constitution."
Lanier said that she wants people to be comfortable with the police effort and that her officers will seek input at community meetings to find out whether residents want clergy members and community leaders to be present when police are passing out literature.
A Safe Homes program similar to the District's was announced in Boston last week after several months of citizen resistance and delays. That department has yet to get a call to search a home.
"We're still waiting for the phone calls to come in," said Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the Boston police.