Groups to monitor D.C. vehicle checkpoints
By BRIAN WESTLEY
Police in the nation's capital set up controversial vehicle checkpoints Saturday in a neighborhood reeling from gun violence, with civil liberties groups considering legal action and closely observing officers.
Police in neon yellow vests stopped motorists traveling through the main thoroughfare of Trinidad — a neighborhood near the National Arboretum in the city's northeast section. Police checked drivers' identification and turned away those who didn't have a "legitimate purpose" in the area, such as a church visit or doctor's appointment.
The checkpoints were announced after eight people were killed in the city last weekend. Most of the killings occurred in the police district that includes Trinidad. Already this year, the district has had 22 killings — one more than in all of last year.
The checkpoints have drawn harsh criticism from civil rights groups.
"Trinidad should not be treated like Baghdad," said Mark Thompson, the leader of the NAACP's local police task force.
Thompson was joined Saturday morning by about a dozen activists representing myriad groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, at the intersection where the checkpoints began in the evening. They warned of legal action if residents' constitutional rights were violated.
"It seems interesting that police are willing to easily cast aside fundamental freedoms for quick-fix, lazy law enforcement tactics," said Johnny Barnes, executive director of the ACLU for the National Capital Area. "We're going to do everything to make sure that the rights of citizens are protected."
Barnes said about two dozen lawyers, law students and other citizens were monitoring the checkpoints Saturday night and interviewing those who were turned away by police to determine if people's rights were violated.
Interim D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty have insisted that the checkpoints are a legal and necessary step to stop a spike in violence.
"It would be unconscionable, maybe even a dereliction of our duty, for the police chief and I to not do something different, to not turn up the heat," Fenty said.
The checkpoints will be enforced at random hours for at least five days, though it could be extended to 10 days, police said. Officers will search cars only if they observe guns or drugs. Pedestrians will not be affected.
Some residents said they felt the checkpoints were unfair to law-abiding citizens.
"You are bothering innocent people," said Diane Kemp, who has lived in the Trinidad neighborhood for 16 years. "I know I live here, so why should I have to show my ID?"
But others applauded the initiative. George Saxton of Capitol Hill was pulled over in his black Ford Focus after dropping off his niece near the checkpoint. He said those who are complaining about the initiative probably have something to hide.
"I hope this will help," Saxton said.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said the checkpoints are the latest example of recent police initiatives that he believes threaten residents' civil rights.
He cited an amnesty program, later scaled back, in which officers planned to go door-to-door asking for permission to search homes for guns. He also pointed to a plan for a large surveillance camera network that he claims lacks adequate privacy rules.
"One has to ask 'What is going on? What is the thinking?'" he said.