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Liberty Takes A Holiday In Occupied Trinidad

Another brutally hot night on Montello Avenue NE, and the front porches are full of people hoping for a breeze that never comes -- and then it does, in the form of fleets of D.C. police, whizzing by on bicycles, in patrol cars, aboard vans and trucks, a virtual army of officers. All here to fight crime by encircling the residents of Trinidad in something called a Neighborhood Safety Zone, better known through history as a ghetto.

Night falls, and the checkpoint is set up. Metal barricades block the streets leading into the neighborhood just east of Gallaudet University. Yellow police tape cordons off the alleyways. Officers check the identity of every driver who seeks entry to the area.

A list of "legitimate reasons" for entering the zone allows in Trinidad residents, as well as those who work there or are visiting relatives (if they can prove it.) Want to visit a friend? Sorry. Just out for a drive? Forget it.

In the few days since Mayor Adrian Fenty and Police Chief Cathy Lanier announced the checkpoint tactic, no one has been shot to death in Trinidad. In the eyes of D.C. leaders, this somehow qualifies as both accomplishment and justification.

But to those who live in the police district around Trinidad, where a spike in murders this year left 22 people dead and culminated 12 days ago in a triple homicide, the cordoning-off of their neighborhood feels more like an occupation than a helping hand.


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Residents ask Lanier why she imposed the checkpoint without so much as a community meeting. The chief replies that time was of the essence and here she is, ready to answer questions.

But something is off about the timing: Lanier calls this a hurried and nimble response to a crime crisis, but the city's apparently permanent interim attorney general, Peter Nickles, tells me the tactic has been carefully crafted.

"We started looking at this six to eight weeks ago as an extraordinary remedy," Nickles says. "We wrote orders and revised them again and again."

Revisions were necessary because federal prosecutors raised questions about the constitutionality of checkpoints. After all, although an appeals court approved a New York City police checkpoint designed to deter drive-by shootings, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 in 2000 that a narcotics checkpoint in Indianapolis was unconstitutional because it was aimed at uncovering "evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing" rather than targeting specific people suspected of being bad guys.

Which category do Washington's checkpoints fall into? They're not dragnets staged to catch a particular person or gang. They're meant to stop any gunslinging drug guys from driving into the area to settle a score.

"The court is always going to look to see the importance of what you're trying to attack and how directly your solution addresses that problem," says Brad Weinsheimer, chief of the Superior Court division of the U.S. attorney's office. He says prosecutors were "supportive of the District's desire to be creative and do what they could to combat the ongoing homicide crisis."

But two men who ordinarily find themselves on opposite sides of law enforcement issues -- the head of the D.C. police union, Kris Baumann, and the legal director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, Art Spitzer -- agree that the checkpoints unconstitutionally infringe on our freedom to move about and that they create the aura of taking action but don't much interfere with the thug life.

"We end up bothering the good people of the world," Baumann says. "It's a PR move."

Spitzer notes that homicides are actually relatively flat citywide in recent years, though there's been a big jump this year in that part of Northeast. "The sad answer is that there may be nothing that prevents crime in a crowded urban area in the summertime," he says.

Most worrisome is what looks like a pattern in which Fenty and Nickles attempt to combat crime by restricting liberties. First, it was the plan to create a central network monitoring more than 5,000 surveillance cameras controlled by various city agencies. By itself, that sounded cumbersome and Big Brotherish, but not unconstitutional. Then came the notion of having police go door-to-door asking residents if they'd let officers search their homes for guns. Now the checkpoints.

The camera and gun plans are being altered because of howls of protest, but Nickles insists that "we're not testing the edge at all. These are things that make sense, that have been tried in other jurisdictions. I think it's a very exaggerated notion to say we are Baghdad on the Potomac."

The late-night spectacle of dozens of officers fanning out over more than 20 blocks attracts quite a crowd, stealing eyeballs from Leno and Letterman. The Constitution takes another blow, the residents of Trinidad learn anew just what their city thinks of them, and the politicians declare victory as another night passes without a shooting.

And then the police trucks return to collect the barricades and the streets belong once again to the sullen young men on the corners.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  June 12, 2008; 8:48 AM ET
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Comments

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If you were a law-abiding citizen who lived in that area, you would probably applaud the police action. I wish the NYPD did this when I lived in a bad part of Brooklyn back in the late '80's. I would have supported it then. Since the DC government continues to "combat crime" by restricting its residents' Second Amendment liberties, the least the city could do is provide actual police protection to the residents.

Posted by: K-Romulus | June 12, 2008 10:02 AM

Why don't you worry a little more about the residents inability to protect themselves? Obviously you can't depend on the police to do it; hell they were within the sound of the gunshots at the triple and got bupkis.

Posted by: Stick | June 12, 2008 10:04 AM

You really think residents should applaud the DC Police's actions that cordon off their neighborhood and restrict ordinary citizens' right to travel?

I guess the residents of Warsaw should have been thankful to the Germans for doing the same?

Posted by: M Street | June 12, 2008 10:15 AM

Liberty took a holiday when the PG County drug gangs moved into Trinidad and harassed Trinidad residents. There is ZERO freedom in Trinidad when the drug gangs are there. The police offer the residents more freedom of movement than an irrational 15 year old truant with a pistol shoved in his pants.

Posted by: DCer | June 12, 2008 10:22 AM

You really think residents should applaud the DC Police's actions that cordon off their neighborhood and restrict ordinary citizens' right to travel?

I guess the residents of Warsaw should have been thankful to the Germans for doing the same?

------

What an extraordinarily anti-semitic thing to say! What kind of horrible holocaust revisionary are you? SICK SICK SICK

The victims of the holocaust were not degenerate drug dealers like you suggest. They were not criminals. They were innocent. Grow up.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 12, 2008 10:37 AM

Fisher may be right that this program will be held unconstitutional; that remains to be seen. But claiming that residents of the neighbordhood are opposed to the police operation is just false. All other reporting I've seen, including the NPR story yesterday, shows that many residents support it.

Clearly, Fisher WISHES all residents would make the same choice he makes: complete liberty is preferable to safety. But the fact is, many residents feel no liberty at all when they can't leave their homes or sit on their porches without the risk of being hit by a stray bullet.

For people like Fisher who live in safe neighborhoods, the choice must appear easy. But for residents of Trinidad, it's a lot more complicated. Hobbes was right: there can be no freedom without order first.

Posted by: cgpost1 | June 12, 2008 10:44 AM

@ 10:37am: Please unplug your connection to the interweb until you can understand sarcasm.

Posted by: M Street | June 12, 2008 10:52 AM

Please unplug your connection to the interweb until you can understand sarcasm.
------

Um, you think what you wrote was funny? go back to college, you're a terrible writer.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 12, 2008 10:59 AM

Ever hear of Jonathan Swift? He once wrote an article about selling babies as food as a way for the poor to acquire money. A Modest Proposal. Was that funny? No, it was satire. An obviously extreme position taken to demonstrate the absurdity of the suggestion.

I'm clearly no Swift, but I would think most with a below average to moderate intelligence would get the point.

Since you may or may not fall into this category, I will do you the favor of explaining:

No, obviously the residents of Warsaw should not have thanked the Germans for establishing the Warsaw Ghetto. No one could or would reasonably think otherwise. Therefore, making the analogy to the situation to Trinidad, setting up barricades to a neighborhood where free citizens' IDs are checked and their activities questioned is also a horrible violation of civil liberties. Clearly not on the order of Warsaw, but this dramatic comparison is the essence of the sarcastic comment.


Posted by: M Street | June 12, 2008 11:14 AM

Loved this bumper sticker I saw recently: "Tact is for people that aren't witty enough to be sarcastic."

Posted by: Rosslyn | June 12, 2008 12:27 PM

This is just a PR stunt by Adrian Fenty and Cathy Lanier, nothing more. DC's cops enjoy being car-bound and can't wait to ditch the Trinidad scam and get back in their cars.

Posted by: D Leaberry | June 12, 2008 1:13 PM

Hey, do the MPD try their really funny German accents and ask "PAPERS!" when the check people?


We're now starting to careen out of control in the post 9-11 powers that we've willingly given up to government.

Posted by: Wondering | June 12, 2008 2:07 PM

technically, the bumper sticker should start "Tact is for people WHO . . .", not "that".

I'm not sure the MPD cops are smart enough to see the humor in asking people for their papers in a fake accent.

Posted by: Stick | June 12, 2008 2:56 PM

I'm reminded of the quote mis-attributed to Benjamin Franklin:
"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania. (1759) http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Benjamin_Franklin

Posted by: Leesburger | June 12, 2008 2:57 PM


Hey Fishy (or anyone else)....You got any better suggestions?

That's what I thought.

Posted by: TruthAboutIt.net | June 12, 2008 5:19 PM

I'm a resident in the Trinidad area and I support Cheif Lanier's decision 100%

NOBODY WANTS TO DEAL WITH THUGS AND NO COUNTS.

Posted by: sc2003 | June 12, 2008 5:56 PM

I am a D.C. resident I find this bizzare. This is one neighborhood. 1. Just 1. What about the highlands in SE that count for more than 1/3 of the homicides in D.C. There are screwed up area's galore in the district and when one is gone another one pop's up. Wow. God bless The Washington D.C. police department. You want to get rid of drug crime in this country, and the homicides that occur with them? Ok. Lets get rid of the drug laws. Also it would help if District residents had a second Amendment that applied to us.

Posted by: Joe | June 12, 2008 11:01 PM

Lazy pigs taking the easy way! God forbid the corrupt DC pigs should do there jobs.
And their cute little police chief needs to stop shoe shopping and come up with some ideas that dont infringe on folks rights. Come cutie it aint that difficult just tell your employees to stop the donut breaks and do their jobs. Any good police officer knows who the bad actors are in the neighborhood and who doesnt belong but it requires a little effort that way. Why do you think pigs run DUI/DWI checkpoints?
Its not because it makes the community safer but becuase its easier thye can all sit around administer sobriety tests without casue and eat donuts!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 13, 2008 7:35 AM

Ever hear of Jonathan Swift? He once wrote an article about selling babies as food as a way for the poor to acquire money. A Modest Proposal. Was that funny? No, it was satire.
-----

Duh, of course we read that in high school and it was hilarious because it was well-written and funny.

Posted by: DCer | June 13, 2008 2:16 PM

" Most worrisome is what looks like a pattern in which Fenty and Nickles attempt to combat crime by restricting liberties."
-By Marc Fisher | June 12, 2008; 8:48 AM ET

It appears that the Fenty-Nickels junta have positioned their "armed enforcers" (police officers or gestapo agents?) around a section of Washington, D.C. to prevent some American Citizens from freely using certain 'public' streets. Looks to be a modified type of 'Martial Law' by a publically funded law enforcement agency (police deartment) - but now- a private army of Fenty, approved by Nickels.

Fenty and Nickels need to be arrested before they cause a rebellion like the one King George III did a couple of hundred years ago.

Martial law on-demand in Baltimore
May 17, 2007 12:37 PM
Public gatherings restricted? Check. Shutdown of independent businesses? Check. Lockdown on traffic and transportation in the area? You bet. Lawmakers in Baltimore trying to curb the city's homicide rate (already 108 this year) have come up with some "desperate measures" of questionable constitutional legality, including heightening police presence in order to lockdown streets in "emergency areas." It has been called, "partial martial law" by some, and one has to wonder if the city of Baltimore may not do better to take a page from The Wire's Hamsterdam for a solution to their inextricably linked drug and homicide issues.
posted by dead_ (60 comments total)
The bill was introduced by Robert W. Curran, a Democrat??
The fact that this kind of proposal is even being considered in America shows how freedom is being systematically undermined on a national level and the post 9/11 police state mentality is filtering down to the local level.
The media reaction to ask "is this a good thing?" shows just how far down the road towards a police state we now are, when just a few years ago such proposals would be considered ludicrous and would be universally denounced without debate.
MSNBC ran a report which asked "are curfews a good idea?" Former Baltimore police commissioner Ed Norris described the proposal as "the most ridiculous thing I've heard in a long time, a horrible thing, and an act of desperation."

Posted by: Dan Wild | June 13, 2008 10:10 PM

You can't beat an elitist journalist who doesn't live in Trinidad but thinks he knows what is best for the little ole people there without a voice and who suffer under constant threat of drug and gang violence. Fisher's colonial paternalism smacks of benign racism. Instead of relying on anecdotal comments, take a legitimate poll and see how many residents privately feel that the brief police presence was worth a weekend of no killings. Who does Fisher quote? The ACLU and the police union. What a joke!

Posted by: MattDC | June 13, 2008 10:19 PM

Marc needs to apologize to the African-American community for this article. That's all anyone can say about it. He has absolutely no idea what this article means. Truly clueless to the "other half."

But when Mark's in a hole, he just keeps digging and digging until he's got trinidad and hillmead at Catholic school articles in a row and he looks like he's obsessed with other people's races and religions. whatta creep.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2008 11:19 AM

"Spitzer notes that homicides are actually relatively flat citywide in recent years, though there's been a big jump this year in that part of Northeast. 'The sad answer is that there may be nothing that prevents crime in a crowded urban area in the summertime,' he says."

What a fatalistic attitude. As long as that's the mentality, why not give the Trinidad police action (okay, maybe the wrong term) a try? What's the worst that could happen, a few people aren't murdered?

I've lived most of my life in crowded urban areas and I can assure you I've never murdered anyone. It's not actually that hard to get through the day without having to use your AK. Your typical day can be a good day.

Posted by: Andy | June 16, 2008 5:30 PM

My favorite part of this: Spitzer saying that nothing else will prevent crime in a crowded urban area in the summertime. I think better economic conditions would do the trick nicely.

Look at NW Washington for God's sake!!

Posted by: Avocado | June 18, 2008 1:13 PM

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