Police Close Streets In Trinidad to
Steer Drivers to Checkpoint

Police called the checkpoint program a success after
there  were no shootings in Trinidad over the weekend.

By Allison Klein and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers , June 10, 2008




A police officer questions a driver trying to
enter the Trinidad neighborhood last night.





Photo By Dominic Bracco -- The Washington Post)

D.C. police stepped up efforts last night to curb violence in the hard-pressed Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast Washington, choking off access to several streets there to force drivers to pass through the new anti-crime checkpoint, Chief Cathy L. Lanier said.

The Montello Avenue checkpoint, where police demanded that motorists account for their presence in the neighborhood, was set up Saturday night for the first time, but some drivers circumvented it by using nearby streets to enter Trinidad, Lanier said.

She said police were "going to be narrowing the funnel a little bit" by guiding the flow of traffic toward Montello Avenue. However, it appeared that the number of officers assigned last night was insufficient to fully implement the plan, and the strategy took on many aspects of a work in progress.

"We're looking at different ways to control traffic patterns," Cmdr. Melvin Scott said.

As traffic backed up, officers found it necessary to remove traffic cones that were intended to close some of the streets. Nevertheless, the checkpoint operated on Montello Avenue, where motorists were questioned closely about their reasons for being there and were asked to provide identification.

On Saturday, police turned away about half of the 50 cars that tried to pass through the checkpoint. Twenty-six drivers were denied access because they "refused to give enough information to continue through Trinidad," said police spokeswoman Traci Hughes, offering the first statistical review of the law enforcement activities.

The neighborhood had no shootings over the weekend, officials said, proclaiming the checkpoint program a success. Trinidad appeared quiet again last night, police said.

The checkpoint was suspended Sunday night for operational reasons unconnected to any complaints, Lanier said, but resumed last night.

Police did stop some cars on nearby streets Sunday, but only to check for seat-belt use.

In announcing her "Neighborhood Safety Zone" initiative last week, Lanier said the checkpoint in Trinidad would run for five days and then perhaps for another five.

Police ran the checkpoint on Montello Avenue for about two hours Saturday, starting at 7:45 p.m. They made one arrest, for driving with an open container of alcohol. Four other drivers who were turned away asked to speak to a police supervisor but were still denied access.

Under Lanier's program, which she said she plans to replicate in other troubled parts of the city, only people with a "legitimate purpose" can pass through the checkpoints. Acceptable reasons include visiting someone or attending a community or religious event.

On Saturday, those who told police that they were going to visit a relative were turned away if they did not provide the relative's phone number so officers could verify their claim, Hughes said.

Leaders at the American Civil Liberties Union, who have criticized Lanier's effort as heavy-handed, were in Trinidad on Saturday night. They questioned the statistics provided by police and said they estimated that 90 percent of cars were turned away.

"Our analysis is different from theirs," said Johnny Barnes, executive director of the ACLU's Washington office. "We think most people were turned away."

He said it became a joke among his workers when they saw police stop an ice cream truck. It was eventually let through.

"It's an ice cream truck," Barnes said. "I mean, ice cream."

Brian Forst, a professor of criminal justice at American University, said it is difficult to judge whether it was appropriate to turn away so many motorists.

"I'd be more concerned if they let in somebody who killed someone," Forst said. "They can't afford to have more homicides there, even if it comes at the pain and suffering of decent people. I can understand that calculus."

Residents of the Trinidad area said yesterday that they would have preferred the police presence in the neighborhood without the checkpoint. Some said it was easy to circumvent police by using other streets, an action that police apparently were trying to thwart last night.

"As cars came up, they made lefts and rights and went the other way," neighborhood activist Wilhelmina Lawson said. "I support them, and I understand what they're trying to do, but I think they're missing it by not sitting down and talking to the residents. We can help them much better if they talk to us."

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said he will hold a hearing Monday on how the checkpoints affect civil liberties. "Observing it reinforced my view it is not effective and reinforced my view it's harmful to police-community relations," he said.

Lanier sent an e-mail within the department Sunday praising officers for their work and calling public criticism "unfortunate."

"We are simply trying to reduce the opportunity for violent offenders to enter a neighborhood for the sole purpose of taking someone's life," Lanier wrote. "We also realize that we can carry out this mission professionally without depriving any law abiding resident of their rights -- most importantly their right to be safe in their own community."

Traffic stops are used as a crime-fighting tool in other cities across the country, especially in "hot spots" in which there are spurts of violence, according to a report released last month by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum.

But unlike what has happened in the District, other police departments do not turn motorists away from an area during the stops, according to the report. Instead, some look for guns and drugs and make arrests. Others said they use it as a community outreach tool, handing out fliers saying that there has been violent crime in the neighborhood.

Police in Baltimore, where there has been a 36 percent decrease in homicides and shootings this year, said they attribute that to targeting violent criminals and improving relationships with members of the community.

"You lock up the baddest of the bad in part by working with people in the neighborhood," Baltimore police spokesman Sterling Clifford said. "You look to people in the neighborhood to tell you who they are and where they are."