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D.C. police to check drivers' purpose

After a spate of killings, officers will stop those who try to enter a crime-ridden neighborhood.

June 06, 2008|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Stung by an outbreak of violence, including eight killings last weekend alone, police are taking the unusual step of establishing vehicle checkpoints in a crime-ridden neighborhood in the nation's capital.

Starting Saturday night, officers will check drivers' ID and turn away any who don't have a "legitimate purpose" in the area -- a plan that has drawn swift criticism from civil liberties groups.

"The Constitution and the Bill of Rights should not become the next victim of the street violence," said Johnny Barnes, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for the National Capital Area. "This plan will treat every resident of that area the way criminals are treated."

The checkpoints come as police try to combat an increase in the number of homicides, which rose 7% in the city in 2007 after several years of decline.

Most of last weekend's slayings occurred in the city's northeast, where authorities plan to set up the checkpoints. That police district has had 22 killings this year, one more than in 2007.

"The reality is, this is a neighborhood that has been the scene of many violent crimes, and something had to be done," police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said.

But the initiative has raised the ire of the ACLU, which plans to watch what happens with the checkpoints before deciding on any legal action.

Officers will stop motorists traveling through the main thoroughfare of Trinidad -- a neighborhood that includes Gallaudet University and is near the National Arboretum.

Police will ask motorists to show proof that they live in the area. If they do cannot, drivers must explain whether they have a reason to be in the neighborhood, such as a doctor's appointment.

Police will only search cars if they observe the presence of guns or drugs, officials said. Anyone who does not cooperate will be arrested.

District of Columbia Council member Harry Thomas Jr., who represents Trinidad, worried about a potential backlash from angry residents.

"Do you want to go home every day and prove that you live at your house?" he asked.

The neighborhood checkpoints aren't the first time Police Chief Cathy Lanier has drawn criticism for measures aimed at reducing crime.

This spring, police scaled back a program in which they planned to go door to door asking for permission to search homes for guns. Critics complained that some residents could feel intimidated by officers asking to come in. Police decided to offer the program by appointment only.

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