The police roadblocks set up this month in a crime-riddled neighbourhood on Washington’s northeast side looked every bit like military checkpoints. For six evenings Trinidad was in lockdown, with yellow police tape, traffic cones and metal barriers choking off access to alleys and streets leading into the area. Traffic backed up along Montello Avenue, where drivers and passengers were required to produce ID and a “legitimate purpose” for entering, including phone numbers and addresses to verify their stories. Residents were not exempt from the lines that formed in the 40° C heat—a necessary measure, says police chief Cathy L. Lanier, for a “neighbourhood in crisis” that has seen a recent spike in homicides, culminating with a triple murder the weekend before the roadblocks were set up on June 7.
“Baghdad on the Potomac,” as Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called it, was the most recent in a series of drastic measures D.C. is exploring to curb violent crime—all of which have come under intense scrutiny. In the spring, city officials launched a project to network more
than 5,000 security cameras in 10 D.C. agencies, including schools and public housing. Charged with creating a Big Brother society, the administration defended it as a means to better coordinate emergency response. D.C. city council has since imposed restrictions on the monitoring, specifically on the realtime element, until a new plan is approved. Meanwhile, another proposal, this one to get guns off the streets (implemented in St. Louis in the 1990s and currently under review in
Boston), drew similar fire from residents and civil liberties advocates. When it was first announced in March, the Safe Homes Initiative envisioned officers knocking on doors in the District’s hard-pressed neighbourhoods, offering residents amnesty in exchange for a warrantless home search. A significantly scaled back version was introduced mid-month, with searches by request only.
The administration’s apparent backing off, and the end of the roadblocks on June 12, has done little to allay the concerns of critics who continue to question the legality of the tactics—a pattern, they say, of overlooking civil liberties. And council member Phil Mendelson says announcing a “very dramatic action,” and then retreating, creates ill will among residents and raises doubts about how the strategy for fighting crime in the District is being conceived. “In a way, it makes it even worse,” says Mendelson, who chaired a public safety committee hearing on June 16 to examine the effect of the initiatives on civil liberties. At that hearing, the ACLU argued the Trinidad checkpoints violated the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure), and infringed on freedom of travel—a position it has made known since the tactic was announced. Mayor Adrian Fenty did not return calls for this story. But based on previous cases, interim attorney general Peter Nickles maintains the neighbourhood safety zone was legal, despite the opinion of the ACLU and some residents who felt their rights were violated. In an interview with Maclean’s, Nickles said “the courts are open” to anyone who wants to mount a challenge—an invitation Spitzer says the ACLU is “strongly considering” taking him up on, especially if the roadblocks return.
After six quiet evenings in Trinidad, officials hailed the checkpoints a success. So far this year, northeast D.C. has seen 22 murders—one more than it did in all of2007Lanier says much of the violence in Trinidad involved people in cars who did not live in the area. Of the 700 vehicles that arrived at the checkpoints, she says less than 50 were turned away. When asked if she would implement the roadblocks again, the chief told Maclean’s, “I don’t know how I wouldn’t.” After the barriers were lifted, long-time resident Rosetta Davis said she had mixed feelings. Davis recalled an era when community policing meant walking the beat and instilling trust. “The police officers now ride right past your house, never once stopping to wave or slow down,” she said. M
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