Directive Details Trinidad Checks
Questions Raised On Effectiveness, Legality of Stops

By Allison Klein and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 6, 2008

When D.C. police begin stopping cars at a "checkpoint" this weekend in the Trinidad neighborhood, they will record all license plate numbers, verify residents' addresses and ask others for phone numbers of those they are visiting, according to a directive issued by Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

Lanier, who has been working on the "neighborhood safety zone" program for two months, said the checkpoints can expand to any neighborhood in response to violent crime. Police said it is a tool they plan to use to increase visibility, make arrests and gather intelligence.

Lanier's directive also says that anyone who does not give a reason for entering a designated safety zone may be turned away, said law enforcement sources who declined to speak on the record because they were not authorized to release the directive. "Legitimate" purposes to be in the area include going to a doctor, church or community event or visiting friends or relatives, officials said. Individuals can show a flier for an event to gain entrance, for example.

Tomorrow's checkpoint will be in the 1400 block of Montello Avenue NE.

Critics have questioned the program's effectiveness and lawfulness, and some police officers have quietly expressed reservations about conducting the stops.

American Civil Liberties Union leaders said they will observe the checkpoint Saturday and talk to motorists. Johnny Barnes, executive director of the ACLU's Washington office, said he will be there with an eye toward possible legal action.

"They seem so willing to cast aside cherished constitutional rights for quick fixes and lazy law enforcement," Barnes said.

But Lanier said the plan has passed muster with other top law enforcement officials in the District -- it was vetted by the U.S. attorney's office, and Interim Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said his office also approved the program.

Officers will begin training today on the checkpoints. They will be taught, for example, that pedestrians are not subject to screening.

Motorists who resist will be arrested for failure to obey an officer. The department will keep the collected information.

The police tactic was announced this week and is aimed at keeping criminals away from a neighborhood recently besieged by gunfire. The 5th Police District, which includes Trinidad, has had 22 killings this year, one more than all of last year.

Checkpoints could be set up in other communities if they are requested by patrol commanders and approved by Lanier. The department also may set up several checkpoints in a neighborhood.

Some pointed out that there are many ways in and out of Trinidad, which could render the program ineffective. Lamar Greene, the 5th District commander, said, however, that the checkpoint will be combined with increased street patrols and deployment of specialty units.

Police will search cars if they suspect the presence of guns or drugs. The enforcement will occur at random hours and last for five days, with the option of extending it to 10.

D.C. Council members are skeptical of the plan. Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said yesterday that he plans to hold a public hearing on the issue.

Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said the initiative appears haphazard and could put officers in danger. He called on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to develop a comprehensive crime-fighting plan. "It's clear that all of us are concerned about violence and murder, but the mayor has no overall strategy," he said.

"Do you think . . . murderers are going to tell police they are there to kill somebody?" Barry asked.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said the plan could be viewed as an infringement on civil liberties. "It's an extraordinary measure, but it's likely to raise some constitutional questions," Gray said.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a law professor at George Washington University, said the police department is establishing a distressing pattern. She cited its recent plans to arm patrol officers with AR-15 semiautomatic weapons and another plan to ask residents to submit to voluntary searches of their homes for illegal guns.

"They seem to lack . . . an ordinary sense of commonly protected rights," Cheh said. "I assume they are acting out of good motivation, but they really have to look into the methods. It's really outrageous."

But Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) was supportive of the plan. "I commend the chief because she is doing her very best to come up with innovative ways to help resolve" the crisis, he said.

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