After Violence, Sealing Off a D.C. Neighborhood Washington, D.C., will set up a police checkpoint Saturday in a part of the city still reeling from nine shootings in nine hours. The mayor and police chief say "sealing off" the Trinidad neighborhood will keep the peace, but residents liken the situation to a police state.
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After Violence, Sealing Off a D.C. Neighborhood

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After Violence, Sealing Off a D.C. Neighborhood

After Violence, Sealing Off a D.C. Neighborhood

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This weekend, Washington, D.C., sets up police checkpoints in a violence-ridden residential neighborhood. Mayor Adrian Fenty says the extreme but necessary measure is a way to keep the peace. He said the residents of D.C. are saying they want to feel safe in their neighborhoods. The number one way to make residents feel safe, at least in the short term, is by police action.

The police department is responding to a recent spike in crime, and they're setting up checkpoints in areas that have seen a lot of violence. Officers stationed on the edge of neighborhood safety zones will cordon off entry and exit points, and they'll ask everyone coming in and going in a car for ID. Joining us now is Washington reporter, Jessica Golloher, of NPR member station WAMU, who has been following the story. Hello, Jessica.


PESCA: Good morning to you. Tell me what the plan is exactly.

GOLLOHER: Basically, what the chief announced on Wednesday is that she has launched a neighborhood safety-zone initiative. She says it's going to reduce crime and increase the quality of life in basically high-crime, at-risk neighborhoods. The neighborhood that she's targeting tomorrow saw three homicides last weekend. At least nine people were wounded in a nine-hour period of time on Saturday.

Basically, she's saying that she's targeting cars that are entering the area because a lot of the crime is due to drive-by shootings. So her reasoning is, if you stop everybody in the area, you ask for identification, make sure that they actually have a reason to be there, that you're going to reduce crime in the long run.

PESCA: So this is D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, and the neighborhood is called the Trinidad neighborhood. What's so bad about the Trinidad neighborhood?

GOLLOHER: You know, I mean, that's a good question. It's typically - northeast D.C. is where the neighborhood is located, and that's not typically one of the places where you see a lot of crime. So there's a lot of questioning as to why this is happening in that area. It's a mixed neighborhood, I would say probably 60 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic, and they're trying to figure that out as well. But in the meantime, they're thinking that this initiative, which some liken to a police state, quite frankly, will help them in the long run. And it's going to last for about 10 days. If they decide that they need to keep these checkpoints up, it can go for as much as 30 days, if they decide to do so.

PESCA: How big will the cordon be? How many cops? How many cars will get stopped in how many square-block area?

GOLLOHER: You know, that's a good question. Basically, the street that they're targeting is a one-way street called Monticello. And it's going to be about three blocks of this one-way street. Police will be all along the street, 20 at least, they say, and they're going to stop every single vehicle that enters that area. The problem, many say, is, all right, well, you know, Trinidad is more than Monticello Avenue. It's more than three blocks. So is this really going to be effective? They are not, however, going to be stopping pedestrians, which is also, some people say, is a little strange as well.

PESCA: And someone could just - I mean, I know it's drive-by shootings, but they're not going to be arresting people when they ask for ID, right? They could just go around? You just take a right and then a left.

GOLLOHER: That's what some people are arguing. And you know, I mean, the police chief says that anyone that is in a vehicle that's stopped at this checkpoint will be asked for their ID. If they refuse, they will be arrested. And a lot of people are saying, well, that's, you know, like I said, like a police state.

And she says, you know, we've had federal blockades set up, like, if there's a big event at the IMF, and people don't seem to have a problem with that, but once we do it for high-crime neighborhoods, people go, you know, are all up in arms. So there's a lot of confusion, it seems to be, and a lot of criticism, and will it really work? Because she also seems to be changing her initiatives as crime increases. Let's say there's a rash of robberies in Georgetown, for example.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

GOLLOHER: Not that there has been. But if that happens, then she changes her initiative that way. If it's a drive-by...

PESCA: You mean to focus on the neighborhood where the crime already hit?


PESCA: So it's a horse-out-of-the-barn-type situation?

GOLLOHER: Yes. And I keep asking her, I'm, like, well, you know, why don't you have one strategy and just stick to it? And she says, you know, it's an always-evolving process, which, also, a lot of people criticize, because, hey, it ain't working, as a lot of people are saying.

PESCA: Have you talked to residents of the Trinidad neighborhood? They will, I'm sure the police chief and the mayor would say, they're going to be the beneficiaries of this, their neighborhood's going to be safer. But what do they say about this?

GOLLOHER: You know, I think it's about half a dozen of the one, six of the other. You have - I talked to several people that are, like, hallelujah, thank you, I'm so happy this is happening. And then other people say, well, you know, it's not really going to work. And what happens is, after you leave, after five, ten days, and then the crime comes back, and somebody else is shot, and then you just come back to the area? They want a systematic answer. They want something that is going to stick.

And I spoke with one woman who said, you know, it's great that you come in here, and you know, when we have this horrible weekend of violence, but you really need to address the issue, which are the kids, the young kids who don't have a lot to do. They're very poor, a lot of them, and they need activities. They need jobs. They need something to get them off the street, you know? I mean, you can only do so much as a police force. And even Cathy Lanier acknowledged that. She's like, I can only do so much. I can only close these homicides. I can only help out. But someone and somebody needs to address the real issue, which is the poverty, a lot of social issues as well.

PESCA: This is being driven, especially, by three killings. What's the overall crime and murder picture look like in D.C.? Are things getting worse?

GOLLOHER: You know what? They are not. They are one more above than they were at the same time last year. Twenty-two dead so far this year and that's one above last year. I think, you know, I think a lot of people, if you read the papers, it's sort of like shock and awe, I would say, because you think, wow, you had, you know, at least seven people killed over the weekend, I can't believe it, it must be like a war zone out there. Well, it was a recent spike in violence and they're trying to address that, but only one more than last year.

PESCA: I've also been reading a lot of comments. So you said that the feelings of the residents are mixed. Of course, they want safety, but they're a little worried about this new very aggressive policing tactic. It seems from the comments I read that most of the members, if not all of the members, from what I've read, of the city council are pretty concerned about this. Have you talked to any of the elected officials?

GOLLOHER: You know, that's interesting. Yes, I have. I talked to at least six of them. And Tommy Thomas, Jr., who is the Ward Five council member in the Trinidad area, was quoted as saying, you know, well, I think this is a police state. I can't believe this. You can't do this. And then when we had this big press conference on Wednesday, he had changed his mind.


GOLLOHER: So, yeah, there was a little bit of that going on. You know, the chair, Vince Gray, was a little concerned, because he thought, well, I don't want peoples' civil rights to be violated. And Acting Attorney General Peter Nichols says, you know what? I've gone through this program. There is nothing wrong with it. We are not going to violate peoples' rights. He said he basically patterned it, as a matter of fact, after a program that was enacted in New York a few years back. He says he has the backing of the U.S. Attorney General. But that still doesn't, you know, quell what a lot of people is saying is, hey, you can't do that.

PESCA: I just want to follow up on one of the things you said. You said the neighborhood Trinidad is mixed, racially mixed.


PESCA: And the people you talked to, is there, the people who are for it and against it, also a mix, or do these opinions break down on racial lines, from what you've seen?

GOLLOHER: You know, that's a good question. I would say most of the people that I spoke with that were African-American were very against the initiative. And most of the people that I spoke with that were African-American range probably from, like, 20 to 60. The man that was most vehement about it was 61 years old. And he said, you know what? This is just not right. I think this is lazy police work. You know, you can't just stop people ad hoc. This is ridiculous. So I think definitely the people that were against it were African-American, at least from my perspective, the ones that I spoke with.

PESCA: And how many days is this first checkpoint going to be up for?

GOLLOHER: It is going to be up for five days, and they could extend it as long as 10 days, and then if the police chief deems it necessary, much longer than that.

PESCA: Jessica Golloher, Washington reporter for WAMU in Washington, D.C. Thank you very much, Jessica.

GOLLOHER: It was my pleasure.

PESCA: Coming up, the Belmont Stakes and the fans who love horseracing. Stay tuned. It's the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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