D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. ordered a full investigation yesterday into allegations that two women were strip-searched after being arrested in connection with an attempt to occupy two vacant houses.
"Chief Turner has directed that a complete and thorough investigation be done and no stone left unturned," said police spokesman Lt. William White III. "He considers the allegations to be very serious, and the investigation is being treated in that fashion."
White said police officers were questioned Thursday night about the alleged searches in response to a reporter's inquiries. Yesterday, he said, the investigation had been expanded and statements were being taken from police officers who were present when the women were in the police station.
Ernestine Turner and Jacqueline Dyson allege that they were strip-searched in the hallway of the 3rd District police station three hours after they were arrested and charged with unlawful entry for trying to occupy two vacant houses owned by the District on University Place NW. Three men were arrested in the same incident but not strip-searched, said William Thompson, one of the men.
The five are members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. The charges against all of the ACORN members were dropped after they spent a night in jail.
Meanwhile, D.C. City Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), who represents the area where the squatters were arrested, said he was angered by the alleged police action and wrote Mayor Marion Barry a letter calling for an end to the arrests of squatters.
"Washington, D.C., is not Soweto or Philadelphia," Smith said. "We don't bomb houses or mistreat our people. I think the police department has got to get its act together. These people are not violent and they are not carrying weapons. This is a nonviolent movement."
During an ACORN news conference yesterday, Dyson and Turner said that they felt humiliated when despite their objections, a female officer instructed them to take down their pants so that they could be searched for knives, guns and drugs. The officer later indicated that she had not been informed of the charge against the squatters, according to the women.
"I'm really outraged about it," said Turner. "What they did doesn't make any sense."
Under a court-ordered agreement stemming from a 1981 lawsuit against the city, District police are not to conduct "strip" or "squat" searches of females who are arrested unless they "reasonably believe" that weapons or evidence is being concealed, or that the women are about to come into contact with the general inmate population.
Nina Kraut, the lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in that lawsuit, said if the squatters' allegations are true "it appears to me that the District police department may now be in contempt of court."
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. issued a second order directing the city to follow the strip-search policy after Kraut accused the police department of not keeping records of the searches as mandated under the court-ordered agreement.
ACORN members said yesterday that they plan to continue to claim vacant District-owned houses for low- and moderate-income families until the city agrees to include its single-family vacant houses in a recently approved homesteading program.
Under that program, the city would be allowed to take title to certain properties and sell them to individuals and groups for $250 a unit. The new owners would be eligible for a $10,000 loan a unit to do repairs.
In a letter to Barry, Smith wrote, "Rather than arresting the squatters, the metropolitan police might better use their time by protecting the squatters and other Columbia Heights residents from the drug dealers, addicts and other criminals who have been using the buildings as shooting galleries and hideouts."