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A Truce Turns Wary in Nation's Capital : Homeless: Threats against the President and other officials also have threatened the relationship between police and those who live right outside the White House.

February 07, 1995|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It was four years ago that David Henry Jackson and his two brotherssettled among the well-tended lawns and pathways of Lafayette Square. There, they met William and Ellen Thomas, already 10-year veterans of the park, and gradually made a place for themselves in their makeshift community.

Of late, however, the Jacksons and the Thomases--and hundreds of others like them at sites scattered across official Washington--have found themselves drawn into an increasingly tense war of nerves with the police.

It is an almost invisible struggle, with no clear-cut villains or obvious solutions. And it is a phenomenon unique to the nation's capital. Nothing quite like it exists, or probably could exist, anywhere else in the country.

Lafayette Square, like many urban open spaces, is a magnet for homeless people--disoriented victims of drug and alcohol abuse, and the mentally ill. That, however, is not the problem.

The problem is that Lafayette Square lies directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

In recent months, the U.S. Park Police, the District of Columbia police and the Secret Service have begun to see the Jacksons and the Thomases and others like them as part of an increasingly alarming threat to the safety of senior government officials from the President on down, and a formerly accommodating relationship between police and their ragged neighbors has begun to break down.

"The police, man, do everything to hassle us, but not to protect us," said Jackson, who came here to complain about the treatment his father received at a Veterans Administration hospital some years ago. "We're not a threat to nobody, man. This park is a place to address grievances to national officials. Since I've been here, I've noticed that people come here from all over the country and from all over the world."

Surprisingly, police for the most part agree. "The homeless themselves or the demonstrators are not perceived as a real threat," said Maj. Robert Hines, spokesman for the U.S. Park Police.

What concerns the authorities is the possibility that individuals who are truly dangerous may lurk unnoticed.

Probably nowhere in the country are police more aware of the legal rights of the homeless and of protest groups than here. Few cities have seen more protesters, and with many of the advocacy groups representing homeless people headquartered here, police have learned to tread carefully.

At the same time, given the realities of the nation's capital, officials are not inclined to take any chances, especially when the heat is on--as it is now.

A series of violent and threatening episodes in the last few months has suggested that the White House and other federal sites have become magnets for unstable individuals who may be armed and dangerous.

Early last fall, Francisco Martin Duran, 26, journeyed to Washington from his home in Colorado and was arrested for allegedly pulling a semiautomatic assault rifle from beneath his overcoat and firing more than two dozen bullets at the north face of the White House. The case is pending.

In mid-December, Secret Service agents discovered that someone had fired at least four bullets into the White House from somewhere in the park-like area, which extends from the South Lawn of the White House down across the Ellipse to the Mall and the Washington Monument.

Four days later, on Dec. 20, the most dramatic and deadly of the recent incidents occurred when a U.S. Park Service officer fatally wounded Marcelino Corniel, a 33-year-old homeless man, on the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk in front of the White House.

According to witnesses and a videotape of the shooting, Corniel brandished a large hunting knife taped to his hand as he chased a Park Service officer out of the park and across the street to the sidewalk in front of the White House. After Corniel failed to obey an order to drop the knife, one of several officers present opened fire.

Adding to the authorities' uneasiness are less publicized but not uncommon incidents such as these:

* On Dec. 23, a man parked a car on E Street south of the White House and ran onto the Ellipse, the grassy area immediately behind the White House. When police chased and caught him, he told them that he had a plutonium bomb.

* Fifteen minutes earlier, police had arrested a 27-year-old man who was carrying a pistol on the Ellipse. He said he had just arrived from Las Vegas and had no address here yet.

* Two days before these incidents, a 44-year-old homeless man was arrested when he ran onto the White House grounds as a gate was opened to admit a vehicle.

*

Against such a background, relations between police, the homeless and the protesters have turned into a bizarre pas de deux--sometimes it is difficult to determine who is leading and who is following.

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