Police chief, mayor say blockades helped stem crime, opponents say ‘lazy policing’ could violate the constitution

WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – District of Columbia officials claimed a victory after a six-day takeover of the Trinidad neighborhood, one of the city’s high crime areas, resulted in no acts of violence but others questioned the tactic and its ability to have long term results.

“It’s just lazy policing,” Ron Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association told The Final Call. “What they’re doing is stopping people normally coming through that area or those passing through to other parts of the city. It’s very easy to claim that this type of policing works. But restricting peoples’ movements in that area might be a violation of their constitutional rights.”


“What they should be doing is going into that community and engaging them, know the people who live there and work with them collaboratively to remedy the problems there. The people who live there are willing to work with the police. They didn’t talk to the community.”

Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the blockades could be used in other areas of the city if crime rises to high enough levels. No specific formula, however, was given to determine what would constitute a high enough level of crime for the operation to be implemented.

History of drugs, crime in the area

The neighborhood’s name comes from the Caribbean island where the owner of the land lived in the 1800s. In the 1980s, when crack cocaine was king and Rayful Edmonds was the D.C. kingpin, the Trinidad community was the launching pad for a drug empire that spread across the city.

Today the neighborhood is mostly Black and about 30 percent Latino. Last year there were 21 homicides in the Trinidad community. In the first five months of this year, there were 22 murders in the neighborhood. Other areas of the city have seen crime stabilize and even decrease, but not Trinidad.

“This is bigger than just a policing matter,” explained Ward Five Councilman Harry Thomas, Jr. The Trinidad community is a part of his ward. “Walk these neighborhoods. If you look around these are peaceful, law abiding citizens who need our help. We have to do everything we can to protect them as public servants.”

“We need to save this community from a true sickness of violence,” he said at a June 4 press conference. Councilman Thomas supported the high profile operation.

“What the residents are saying is they want to feel safe and the number one way is with police action,” said Mayor Adrian Fenty June 4 as he announced the implementation of Neighborhood Safety Zones.

“The Neighborhood Safety Zones are established in partnership with the Attorney General’s office,” he said, “We want to completely shut it down and prevent the continuing drug sales and shootings.”

He explained that after months of meetings about how to address rising crime in the city, a decision was made to go beyond normal policing.

The city defines a Neighborhood Safety Zone as a geographic area designated by the chief of police in response to high levels of crimes and violence. The purpose is to provide high police visibility, prevent and deter crime, and create safer neighborhoods by prohibiting vehicles with no legitimate purpose from entering the area.

According to Police Chief Lanier vehicles are often used in committing serious crimes, particularly armed violent crime. In April and May 2008, the city saw 33 incidents of shootings or homicides in which a vehicle was involved.

“We want to take away all the things that facilitate a criminal’s ability to commit a crime. There were 14 shootings or homicides since April 1, where the suspect was in a vehicle,” explained Chief Lanier at a press conference. “We want to reduce the level of violence and disrupt the criminal activity.”

The Neighborhood Safety Zone was established in Trinidad June 7 andpolice conducted 10 checkpoints.More than 700 vehicles entered the restricted area; 46 vehicles were prohibited from driving through.Officials arrested one driver for possessing an open container of alcohol.There were no shootings in Trinidad while the Neighborhood Safety Zone was in place. The operation ended June 13.

“The call from the community is to stop the violence and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Chief Lanier. “The residents are saying to us, ‘Why are so many people from other neighborhoods coming to my neighborhood, selling drugs and committing violence?’ We are talking to everyone coming into this neighborhood.”

The mayor said additional services from major city departments such as employment, social services, health, parks and recreation would be made available to the community.

“We are picking the highest crime areas and all resources of the government will be made available. I am giving the chief access to services. We want to infuse the areas with whatever resources are necessary to drive crime down,” said Mayor Fenty.

The Neighborhood Safety Zones are the latest in the police chief’s efforts to control escalating crime. The year started with her plan to have officers go door to door in high crime areas asking permission to enter and search for guns.

The plan had the ACLU going door-to-door telling residents not to let the police in.

“Mr. Chairman, at the outset, I wish to state that we agree with the police that the scourge of guns and violence proliferating many District of Columbia neighborhoods is an unacceptable situation,” said Johnny Barnes, executive director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area as he testified before the city council in April.

“But, we disagree that police practices should conflict with fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms. While well intentioned, this proposed program of the police, it seems, is lazy law enforcement, ‘quick fix’ law enforcement that, in the end, is likely to do far more harm than good,” said Mr. Barnes.

Next was the police chief’s plan for officers to carry semiautomatic rifles while on patrol this summer. Her rationale? “We want to be prepared. I want officers to have what they need to be safe,” she said.

Are safety zones legal?

“These provisions are fully constitutional and are supported by the U.S. Attorney General,” said Peter Nickles, interim attorney general. According to the promotional material developed by the city, “The U.S. Courts have found that such zones are constitutional when limited in scope, and when conducted for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”

Mr. Nickles met several times with the U.S. Attorney General’s office as the plans for the Neighborhood Safety Zones were being formulated. Prosecutors raised questions about its constitutionality and the plan was revised several times, according to officials.

When all was said and done police officers would only stop motorists and ask if they had legitimate reasons for coming into the targeted neighborhood.

Others are not convinced that the Neighborhood Safety Zones are legal.

“These blockades are nothing new,” said Mr. Hampton. “In the 1980s horse blockades were used in the 3rd District at 14th and Girard. Cars couldn’t drive by and the ACLU got an injunction. You can’t deny access just because people don’t live there.”

In the 1980s, a massive war on drugs called Operation Clean Sweep allowed police officers to establish roadblocks, confiscate cars and infuse drug areas with undercover officers. Operation Clean Sweep ran for two years and resulted in more than 50,000 arrests. But the D.C. Court of Appeals later found it to be unconstitutional–in a case that involved a street roadblock.

“This just isn’t good police strategy,” said Mr. Hampton. “They use good police strategy in Capitol Hill, Upper Northwest and in Georgetown. They use something that involves the community. That doesn’t happen in most neighborhoods. The citizens are ready to say what they want. The question is are the police ready to listen.”

The ACLU is considering a suit in response to the Neighborhood Safety Zones.

At Large Council member Phil Mendelson opposes the blockades. He told reporters the blockades “engender community hostility and create a bad rapport with the neighbors.” He plans to convene a hearing to discuss the initiative.

Mary Robinson, a resident of the Trinidad community, also questions whether anything will change with the departure of police officers.

“The people committing these crimes aren’t dumb. They know once the police leave, it’s back to business as usual. I want to feel safe but not just for six days. I want to feel safe from now on.”

Mr. Hampton believes the answer is community policing. “You have to be in the community and engage the residents. Talk to the people and get to know them. They know what’s going on in their neighborhood. The people are willing to work with the police because I’ve talked to them.

“There’s a better way to secure a neighborhood. The people who support this method only do so because they believe nothing else will work. This community is like any other one filled with Black and Brown people. They need services.”