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D.C. Police to Check Drivers In Violence-Plagued Trinidad
"My reaction is, welcome to Baghdad, D.C.," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the ACLU's Washington office. "I mean, this is craziness. In this country, you don't have to show identification or explain to the police why you want to travel down a public street."
Interim Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said that his office reviewed the initiative and that similar efforts had survived court tests.
"I don't anticipate us being sued," Nickles said. "But if you do want to sue us, the courts are open."
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor said that D.C. officials consulted his office about their plans and that prosecutors suggested some changes to try to ensure that any arrests would hold up in court. "We applaud the District's efforts to make neighborhoods safer," Taylor said. "Whatever we do has to be consistent with the Constitution."
New York police set up a nearly identical checkpoint in 1992 in a neighborhood of the Bronx that was plagued by drug dealing and drive-by shootings. Police ran the Watson Avenue Special Operation on a random basis, mostly in evening hours. Officers stopped drivers, but not pedestrians, coming into the area, to confirm that they had a legitimate reason to be there.
A federal appeals court upheld the legality of the New York effort, saying in a 1996 ruling that it "served an important public concern" and was "reasonably viewed as an effective mechanism to deter crime in the barricaded area."
D.C. police have used various forms of checkpoints for years. In 1988, for example, they blocked streets and searched courtyards in a pair of apartment complexes in Northeast Washington in a bid to drive out drug dealers. That move came during the crack cocaine epidemic, in a year when the city recorded 372 homicides. Last year, the city had 181 killings.
Former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., who led the department from 1989 until 1992, said he liked using checkpoints because his officers were able to make arrests and gather intelligence.
"They are effective. You recover stolen cars and firearms," Fulwood said. "You've got to have a lot of them if you're going to have them. You need to move as the criminal element shifts."
Some residents expressed support for the plan yesterday, saying they are willing to submit to the checks if it makes the neighborhood safer. "We can't endure any more homicides," said neighborhood activist India Henderson.
But others said they were disappointed police have not developed relationships that would allow them to gather information and find criminals without resorting to the stepped-up tactics.
"I knew eventually we'd be a police state," said Wilhelmina Lawson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. "They don't talk to us, they're not community minded."