D.C. Councilman Defends Police Checkpoints In response to a recent crime wave in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington, D.C., police have set up vehicle checkpoints to keep would-be criminals out. D.C. Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. explains why he hopes residents will accept the new restrictions.

D.C. Councilman Defends Police Checkpoints

D.C. Councilman Defends Police Checkpoints

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In response to a recent crime wave in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington, D.C., police have set up vehicle checkpoints to keep would-be criminals out. D.C. Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. explains why he hopes residents will accept the new restrictions.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, gas prices inching above four bucks a gallon are rocking U.S. consumers, but Norwegians are paying more than twice that, but in Venezuela, just pennies. A look at the world's highest and lowest gas prices. Plus, another installment on the basics of investing from our money coach, how to keep your cool when the headlines are burning you up.

But first, summer is on the way, and in many cities that has sometimes meant a surge in violence. Here in the nation's capital, city officials and residents are reeling from a recent spate of homicides, seven in a single weekend. In an effort to stem the violence the police are bringing back an old but still controversial tactic, checkpoints. Officials say the idea is to keep the troublemakers out, but some residents ask whether it's worth it and if it even works. Joining me to talk more about this is Harry Thomas Jr. He's a D.C. council member whose district includes parts of the northeast quadrant including the Trinidad neighborhood where a triple homicide took place the weekend before last, part of a surge of violence that has the city worried. Mr. Thomas, thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. HARRY THOMAS JR. (D.C. Councilman, Ward 5): Thank you for having me, and thank you for addressing this most important civil liberties issue for us.

MARTIN: When the police chief and the mayor first raised the idea of placing checkpoints in the Trinidad neighborhood, did they discuss it with you, and what was your first reaction?

Mr. THOMAS: There were initial conversations of course with me. The degree of the plan was not actually laid out, and so I've always - and my first reaction as an African-American male is just quite frankly, you know, you have to understand the civil liberties issues. Then as a public official to a community that has about 22 murders within the past five months and neighbors who are just reeling with safety concerns, you have to look and evaluate different ways of doing things to protect the neighborhood. And so it's a very troubling time for me because you are taking on different civil liberties aspects that really question what we live in this country for. But at the same time there has been no outcry with 22 murders where people just say hey, we've got to do something to change this, and so the city is left in a very precarious position to protect public safety.

MARTIN: What's the logic behind the checkpoints? What is it supposed to accomplish?

Mr. THOMAS: The real logic, if you really wanted to do the most basic thing, is to limit commerce activities around drug activities, I would think, for those are coming in to do illicit activities. Because it's really a vehicular checkpoints. A lot of the industry of drug trafficking in that community, people come in on cars. The other logic is that we tracked and looked at most of the people who had been shot in that particular community, and it was vehicular traffic taking those people out of the community bringing weapons into the community, and so there was a need to try and give it a checkpoint to see what was going on.

MARTIN: So it's not people being stopped as they walk about their business going to the store, it's directed at cars?

Mr. THOMAS: It's directed primarily at cars, vehicular traffic, and that's what the initiative was.

MARTIN: OK. We went out to the neighborhood over the weekend to ask residents how they felt, as you might imagine, responses were mixed. Some people told us they're glad the police are trying something, but others very upset about this. Here's Teloria Green (ph). She told us she's lived in the neighborhood her whole life, and this is what she said.

Ms. TELORIA GREEN (Lifetime Resident of New Checkpoint Area, Trinidad, Washington, D.C.): If something is going to happen it's going to happen. Them stopping cars is not going to stop stuff from happening in Trinidad. The situations that have been happening in Trinidad have been happening between Trinidad residents. They talk about black-on-black crime, well, this is Trinidad on Trinidad crime.

MARTIN: What about that? Her take is that this is interpersonal, these are interpersonal disputes, people who know each other, and that stopping people from coming into the community isn't going to stop whatever's causing these fights to escalate into something lethal. What's your take?

Mr. THOMAS: To a degree I have two things to say. One, as a community we can never accept this violence amongst ourselves, especially as African-Americans. This is our next civil rights battle and our next - our biggest fight. That's the first thing I see.

Secondly, yes there are some neighbors who do have those issues with each other and the young lady for example that was bludgeoned, and it was someone in the community. But there also have been other many cases who we know they were not people in the community and people coming in, and yes they may have patterns and hang in that community, but the long and short of it is these people are not always there in the community. And everyone in that community is trying to have public safety and peace and tranquility that they deserve in their homes.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with D.C. councilman Harry Thomas Jr. about the idea that the police just instituted over the weekend reinstituting checkpoints in a bid to stem a spade of killings in the district. This is - the district's not the only major city that's going through this. I don't know whether you've been following this, but in Newark there is a spate of killings, Philadelphia, you know, overall it seems that the year to year crime figures seem to be going in the right direction, but there have been a number of cities that have been - that have experienced these kind of spasms of violence. Do you have any idea - have you been in touch with officials in some of these other places to ask what do you think is going on here?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, the biggest thing is it is an urban issue, an urban issue, and primarily a lot of our African-American and minority communities. The issue is we're not connecting our residents to those opportunities that are now coming to these big cities and there's this degree of frustration. I always point back to the late eighties, early nineties, in this city and particularly in others, where vocational education throughout the country was taken away.

Well, we have all of these opportunities, billions of dollars of vocational opportunities, we have not prepared our citizens for that, and so when I look at it I have a ten-point plan and a long-term plan looking at other jurisdictions as well this as getting our neighbors to commerce, getting opportunity to people - that will change lives. We also have to bear fruit of the issue of the late eighties and the drug epidemic - the crack baby epidemic. All those things were intercity problems that are now coming home.

MARTIN: So you think this is a drug issue? Do you think this is a drug issue - drug trade issue?

Mr. THOMAS: There's a mental health issue. There's a drug trade issue. There's an economic commerce issue. There's a distraction from - while I always say this, we've built up downtown and left some of our neighborhoods behind.

MARTIN: You're a second generation public servant. Your father also represented the same community, and you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that this is a civil rights issue for you. Does it trouble you that you're still having some of the same kinds of challenges that your father had in representing the neighborhood?

Mr. THOMAS: Absolutely. I can remember my father brought FedEx to New York Avenue. That was the first boom, and so our neighborhoods have gotten these boosts slowly. But we have a big project for example like the New Town Development in Florida Avenue redeveloping commerce and for the basic level street vendors, and we have to infuse those kinds of things and really look at it. We just opened Phelps High School which was closed. My father fought very hard to try and keep it open so I'm a benefactor of understanding the importance of having Phelps come back online and it will open 2009. That's vocational educational opportunities, but at the same time we closed the school like MM Washington which talked about other trades, cutting hair, nursing…

MARTIN: But your basic take on this is that these are people who don't have enough to do and they don't have enough access to legitimate ways to earn a living? Is that your take?

Mr. THOMAS: I think my take to that is we haven't connected them to the opportunities. I think the other big issue has been education. While we're changing education, there is a large - if you look at the murders, the folks are between 20 and 40 years of age, many of them have had low educational attainments and have not connected. We also have an issue, what I talked about the eighties and that drug epidemic where we have mandatory sentencing guidelines in the city where people are now coming home with no skills and now we have to figure a way to deal with those people. And so we have to have some real comprehensive approaches to this to change the neighborhoods and give them opportunities.

MARTIN: But then again you have a city like New York which is huge, much larger than D.C. D.C. what has half a million people in it? New York has many, many times that. The murder rate there is the lowest it's been in 20 years. ..TEXT: Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: What accounts for the difference?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, I think the big difference is we made a huge transition from traditional federal government jobs, this has been a government town. And now we're trying to catch up with economic development where we have really - you know what I meant - my mother and father were federal government workers and district government workers, and that's what really in the African-American community sustained us.

Now we've switched from a new economic development area where we're bringing in commerce, bringing in different kinds of ideas, economic revitalization. And we've never connected to that.

And so we have to figure a way to connect residence to these new job opportunities. These new green jobs, new things that we're doing. That we now have to really change what the city has become to employ its residence.

MARTIN: So, thecheck point went up over the weekend. We have a couple of minutes left. How do you think it went? What was the feedback you got over the weekend?

Mr. THOMAS: It was mixed emotions. We're evaluating it, we want to make sure the police training piece is definitely in place. I think it's a big first step, but it's a small first step. It was only for a five day period with a possibility of a 10 day period.

Now the real work begins. How do we do community policing? How do we continue to have all of the things we need for that community to change, and make sure the residence civil rights stay in place and they're able to live there safely?

MARTIN: Some of the folks we talked to over the weekend said that they think, OK it's nice that the police are here now, but they've been complaining about this as you mentioned. Twenty-two murders in the community in a couple of months span. They feel like they haven't really gotten the attention of the police to this point, and now it goes from too little to too much. What's your response to that?

Mr. THOMAS: I can tell you it was a graduated thing. I called for a crime emergency over two months ago. We've had police in that community and in almost every instance where we've had these shootings police were here in a two to three block radius. And so, we had to go to next step, because we have more police - we've doubled the deployment in our district, the chief has been very responsive, and we have a new commander in the 20 street.

And so, we have to go to every means to once stop the violence, first. Make it safe, and then second, have a continuum of a safe neighborhood through regular community policing which we're going to continue to do.

MARTIN: But it sounds to me like you're ambivalent yourself. How do you feel now? Mr. THOMAS: I feel that we're making progress. I feel torn of course, because of what I told you from the very beginning. But I am at a desperate place to make sure we have public safety. And especially as an African-American, I am outraged that we had as a community, are not really just angry. That we're killing each other, and that's what this is. And so, it is up to us to find every means possible to save our community and really make a difference, because these are not anybodies children or young adults and adults, but ours.

MARTIN: Do you feel safe in your own district?

Mr. THOMAS: Absolutely. I do, and I think that the majority of the citizens are safe and they should know that. And what happens with the crime patterns is unfortunate that the people that are left to do these crimes are doing them in violent ways, because they don't have the skills to deal with true conflict resolution, and the other issues that we have been accustomed to in our communities.

MARTIN: Well, will you come back, and keep us posted?

Mr. THOMAS: I will be more than happy, and thank you for this opportunity.

MARTIN: D.C. councilman Harry Thomas Jr. was kind enough to join us in our studio in Washington. Thank you so much.

Mr. THOMAS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: You just heard from Washington D.C. councilman Harry Thomas Jr. about police efforts to stem violence in the city and in his district in particular by setting up police checkpoints.

To hear what some residents are saying you check out the slide show on our website at npr.org/tellmemore. We'd also like to know what police are doing about crime in your area. Whether those tactics are working, and whether there are other innovative strategies out there that you'd like to tell us about. Let us know.

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