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Directive Details Trinidad Checks

Questions Raised On Effectiveness, Legality of Stops

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 6, 2008; Page B01

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.

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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.

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