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On Saturday night, D.C. police converged on a small, one-way street in Trinidad to man the first of their newly-approved Neighborhood Safety Zone checkpoints. Officers stopped cars driving south down Montello Avenue NE, which is hardly a major entrance point to the area, with Florida Avenue and its tributaries just to the south. (In fact, I tried for a while to enter via the checkpoint but kept ending up on the other side of it without passing through the gauntlet.) Officers stood in the middle of the intersection and asked drivers for I.D. and an explanation of their business in the neighborhood. Sometimes, an officer would use a flashlight to peer into the vehicles (does that constitute plain view if they find something?) If drivers didn’t have a good enough reason to be in the hood, the officers waved them to the left. According to legal observers from the ACLU, about 90 percent of the cars were rejected, often because the drivers didn’t live in that immediate block. Most people parked around the corner and walked back.
The whole scene felt a bit surreal. Everyone was sort of slow and sleepy after a day of 96-degere heat. Storm clouds darkened the sky but held their rain, just sparking up with intermittent lightening. Despite the impending storm, this normally sleepy intersection attracted a crowd of many dozens. There were people from the neighborhood, police officers and white-shirted brass, and lots of white people in t-shirts with clip boards (representatives of various do-good organizations). I watched assistant chief Diane Groomes field questions, or rather, commentary, from a group of frustrated young people, some of whom kept calling her Cathy. There were lots of comparisons to Iraq and Afghanistan. One young man asked Groomes why the city hadn’t held a neighborhood meeting to discuss the checkpoint. She said it was a fast, strategic decision in response to the murders, and that she was here now, ready to listen. The guy said back, “You want to listen to us now, after you’ve made your decision.” She said, “People make decisions all the time.” In addition to questioning the legality and civil rights implications of the action, many people wondered aloud about the effectiveness. One little boy remarked, “people do killings when they’re walking, too.”
While the city has repeatedly stressed the legality of the plan, the courts have not whole-heartedly endorsed checkpoints. In Indianapolis v. Edmunds, the Supreme Court ruled that checkpoints that serve general law enforcement purposes (rather than narrow dragnets for specific violations) contravene the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. It seems plausible that Lanier’s checkpoints are pretty damn broad and general, even if they target just one neighborhood. If I were the ACLU (and knew more than one CrimPro class worth of law), it might seem like a reasonable gamble on which to wage a potentially precedent-setting lawsuit. Which makes me wonder what kind of payoff Lanier sees in this plan. The crime-fighting benefits are vague at best, and she hasn’t exactly won over the community. Is all that worth a potentially costly legal battle?
Instead of empathizing with her critics, Chief Cathy Lanier has cast them as jaded curmudgeons who don’t really care about public safety. In an open letter to 5th District residents, she wrote, “It is unfortunate that some want to criticize the use of this tool when we are simply trying to reduce the opportunity for violent offenders to enter a neighborhood for the sole purpose of taking someone’s life… I want to thank the officers, residents and other supporters of this district for what residents agree was a successful weekend. No matter what the critics say, this collaboration was a way of working together to confront potential violent crime at the door to say, “the crime and the killings are not welcomed in the Fifth District or any part of our city.”
On the list serve, one resident responded: “It is unfortunate that if someone expresses concern about this tool, you see it as negative… It is easy to set up a road block and soothe your mind that you are fighting crime in our neighborhood, but many of us feel that you have not done enough of the good old fashioned policing to justify setting up road blocks and it makes us all feel as though we are criminals.”