Dominic Robinson was part of a group that hung out in front of Nooks barber shop on Sheriff Road, a strip of worn storefronts on the District’s far northeastern edge.
Police have long looked with suspicion on the communal gathering spot in an area known for violence and drug dealing. But the people who meet up there say the attention they receive from officers amounts to harassment.
The clash came to a head in the summer of 2018 when videos of police officers descending on the group — finding PCP and a pellet gun but making no arrests — led to a D.C. Council hearing in which residents and lawmakers criticized police conduct.
Robinson joined those testifying, saying police “look at everyone in the community like villains.” He had recorded one of the videos that brought attention to the sweep.
Robinson, 32, was fatally shot nearly a year later, just past midnight on July 9, in front of a house two blocks from Nooks and a half-mile from where he had lived. No arrests have been made, and authorities have not described a possible motive.
His death calls attention once again to a street that came to symbolize tensions between residents and police over how best to curb violence and stem a rising homicide count in neighborhoods on the city’s margins, where trust of law enforcement can be strained.
Videos showing troubling encounters with police — one of which occurred as recently as April — along with testimony at the council hearing illustrate the rift. Residents complained police regularly taunted them and showed up in force to intimidate; the police chief accused the people there of trying to provoke his officers to force a confrontation.
At the hearing, Robinson said residents pushed back against what they saw as police overreach: “That’s why we retaliate so much toward them. It’s like an ongoing beef.”
“We don’t need the police around here,” he told those assembled. “We police our own neighborhood.”
The area’s neighborhood advisory commissioner, Anthony Lorenzo Green, last year warned police that some residents had reached their breaking point. Green recently said on Twitter that he intends to run for the Ward 7 council seat, now held by former mayor Vincent C. Gray.
“There’s a lot of shooting in this city, and a lot of people are dropping dead,” said Green, who mentored Robinson and convinced him to testify at last year’s hearing. “He was a young man who was trying to do right and he was constantly picked on by police.”
Police said officers have had fewer conflicts with people on Sheriff Road in recent months, though activists say tensions continue.
Robinson’s family did not want to talk about the death. Green said Robinson had two children, ages 6 and 10. One recent day, people Robinson knew from the neighborhood sat in front of Nooks, a liquor store and a day-care center. They shooed away reporters, and one questioned whether a story would positively reflect Robinson’s legacy.
“I think everybody is trying to wrap their brains around this, trying to figure out what happened and why,” said April Goggans, a core organizer for Black Lives Matter in the District. She called Robinson “the Lawyer,” noting binders he kept documenting allegations of abuse.
“He had a keen understanding of the intersection between community violence and police violence,” said Goggans, explaining that Robinson believed the way police treated residents made the neighborhood more dangerous, not less. “This is a big loss. Not just to us, and his immediate family, but to the whole public.”
Robinson was praised along Sheriff Road for pushing back against police and for organizing book bag giveaways to students and handing out free costumes to children on Halloween. Other parts of his life were more complicated.
His most recent criminal record includes numerous run-ins with police, which Green and Goggans describe as consistent with his activism, and which police describe in court documents as deliberate interference. In one instance, police accused him of punching two officers when they say he deliberately obstructed a traffic stop that did not involve him.
Those charges were unresolved at the time of his death.
At the council hearing on July 12, 2018, Robinson offered his views of some of those confrontations, including a brawl he said broke out with officers when he and his uncle went to a police station.
Another time, he said, he got into a scuffle with an officer who told him that he couldn’t wear a ski mask in subfreezing weather. His account couldn’t be verified, but he described the confrontation as more of a mutual fight than one of excessive force: “I snatched away from him,” he told the council. “We just kept going back and forth.”
He even hoped to launch a clothing line that featured T-shirts emblazoned with a purposely misspelled profanity directed at police.
The standoff in front of Nooks in June 2018 came when members of the Gun Recovery Unit swept in after surveilling a parked vehicle with expired license plates and dark-tinted windows. Police said they saw people going back and forth to the vehicle.
Suspecting drug activity, the plainclothes officers waded into the group outside. They searched one man after seeing a bulge in his shirt and found a pellet gun. Another man was searched as he sat in a chair. One officer falsely told the group that everyone could be searched because one person in the group had a weapon. Other officers found liquid PCP and scales.
After video of the tense standoff was played at last summer’s hearing, several council members joined residents expressing concern at the way police handled the situation.
Police Chief Peter Newsham defended his officers, describing them as “extremely restrained” as they uncovered evidence of drugs and drug sales and a pellet gun. Police said workers at the day care had complained about the men sitting on the lot.
In January, after a 17-year-old was shot on Sheriff Road in a hail of 40 bullets, Newsham said that the council hearing had “emboldened” criminals.
Black Lives Matter said it was police who were causing the most trouble. The group later posted two videos in which officers seem to publicly identify men as cooperators in what the group said was part of a pattern of intimidation.
One April video shows an officer in an unmarked cruiser pointing to a man, whose name he calls out, saying, “Thanks for the info,” and giving a thumbs-up sign. Another video from August 2018 shows an officer in a marked cruiser using his loudspeaker to tell a man, “I appreciate you talking to me.” The man answers, “Now you just put my life in danger.” The officer answers, “Yep, you’re right.”
Kristen Metzger, a D.C. police spokeswoman, said the internal affairs division investigated the 2018 incident and the officer resigned.
She said the video from April was investigated by the department’s internal affairs division and then turned over to the independent District Office of Police Complaints. She said that office dismissed the case in June. The police complaints office could not verify that account based on the information provided.
When Robinson testified at last year’s council hearing, he was not hopeful the relationship between police and his community would improve.
“It’s an ongoing cycle,” he said. “Things will never change.”