In Face of Protests, Police Call Area Checkpoints a Success

By Keith L. Alexander and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 8, 2008

D.C. police began checking drivers' IDs last night in a neighborhood that has been plagued by homicide, and although the policy found critics, among them at least one motorist, a police official said it went well.

"We did not hear any gunfire," said Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes, expressing her belief that the program had satisfied one of its main goals: curbing the spate of shootings that has been troubling the Trinidad neighborhood and much of the surrounding Northeast Washington area.

Seeming less impressed by the procedure, Herbert Temoney, 50, a neighborhood resident, said police had been cordial when they stopped his car at Montello Avenue and Owen Place NE and questioned him.

But he was skeptical, stating that stopping motorists at checkpoints may not be an adequate response to the killings.

"I think it's a bit like closing the door after the horse got out," he said.

Earlier yesterday, before the traffic checks began, many people gathered to complain about the policy, which they said was another example of ineffective over-policing.

"They're out here putting tickets on cars of residents when they should be out here walking around getting to know the neighborhood and learning who lives here and who doesn't," said Diane Kemp, a 16-year resident of the area who was ticketed a few months ago.

"Now we have checkpoints, one more way of hurting those of us who live here."

Representatives of several civil and housing rights organizations protested the plan as they gathered in the 1400 block of Montello Avenue NE. Eleanor Johnson, of the D.C. Coalition for Housing Justice, said the police were "creating a police state."

"Neighborhood Safety Zone" signs were on light poles throughout the area. They warned: "Vehicles entering this area are subject to stop. Operators must provide identification."

About 15 demonstrators decried the checkpoints, saying they violate the residents' rights. "Trinidad, yes; Baghdad, no!" they yelled. "Don't turn Trinidad into Baghdad!"

Mark Thompson, chairman of the District's NAACP Metropolitan Police and Criminal Justice Review Task Force, said residents of the neighborhood should have had an opportunity to weigh in.

"Checkpoints send the wrong message. It says that this area and the residents here are dangerous. And that's not true. The majority of the residents here are law-abiding, hard-working citizens," he said.

Police officials decided to implement the checkpoints in the neighborhood after three people were killed here last weekend. For the next five days, officers will check drivers' identification and ask their purpose for being in the area, accepting such reasons as visits to friends, attending church or seeing a doctor.

Those without such destinations will be turned away, and the uncooperative could be arrested for failing to obey an officer. Police will also search cars if they suspect there are guns or drugs.

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, backed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), announced the checkpoints after increased pressure from residents to stop the violence, they said. But residents who gathered yesterday said they would prefer a steady police presence, as well as education and job-training programs.

Cecilia Matthews, who has lived in the area for five years, pointed to a lack of surveillance cameras and said, "There are other things the city can do than violate the rights of law-abiding citizens," she said.

Some protesters said Trinidad was unfairly targeted because the area is made up mostly of African Americans. "The city wouldn't do this in Georgetown or Capitol Hill," said Ronald Hampton, a retired 22-year D.C. police veteran and head of the National Black Police Association.

Joanne Steinberg of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund said the group backed the city's fight against legalizing handguns but would "aggressively" watch to see whether the checkpoints violated residents' rights. "We are concerned about the constitutionality and the racial bias of this decision," Steinberg said.

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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