After Checkpoints, Gratitude and Deep Skepticism

WASHINGTON — By Friday evening, the checkpoints were gone from the Trinidad neighborhood, leaving residents to ponder the city’s actions after nearly a week of intense police attention.
As members of this community in Northeast Washington met that day inside a recreation center to discuss crime, young men outside the windowless building traded packets for money, near a memorial for a man who had died after being shot 17 times.
The neighborhood was on lockdown for six days, until Thursday, as city officials tried to end a spate of shootings by setting up checkpoints where all occupants of vehicles were required to prove that they had a legitimate reason to enter the area. The police said they had stopped vehicles because most of the killings were drive-by shootings, which residents attributed to the drug trade.
Judy Washington, a 57-year-old resident, said the meeting and the checkpoints were ridiculous.
“Why don’t they check some of these guys standing on the corners, run them out of our neighborhood?” Ms. Washington asked, gesturing toward a cluster of young men nearby.
Inside the hot gymnasium, over the hum of a fan, residents discussed the police action. Some complained that city officials had not given residents advance notice that Trinidad would be the first community designated as a neighborhood safety zone, which allowed the police to set a perimeter for up to 10 days.
Police checkpoints are not uncommon, but the Police Department’s demand for people’s names and the telephone numbers of their destinations brought national attention.
The reaction among people interviewed throughout Trinidad was mixed. Some said they were grateful that the police had done something, anything, as the violence had grown, with 22 killings so far this year, compared with six at this time last year. Other residents said the police action had unfairly given Trinidad a bad name and inconvenienced the working-class community while other parts of the city were also experiencing an increase in violence.
Some younger residents said the checkpoints were ineffective, and several older ones said the effort did not address the causes of the crime: poverty and a lack of education.
Even as civil rights groups questioned the legality of the stops, the Police Department declared the initiative a success. The police said they made one arrest, turned away 46 vehicles and stopped more than 700 vehicles at 10 checkpoints. And, most important, there were no killings over the six days.
Officials have left open the possibility of additional checkpoints in Trinidad and elsewhere in the city.
The neighborhood, a mostly black community near Gallaudet University, a leading institution for the deaf, was integrated in the 1950s. It was hit hard by the city’s crack epidemic in the late 1980s and 1990s but had been relatively quiet for the last few years.
Residents spend a lot of time on porches. Neighbors greet one another by name. Streets are lined with old trees, and yards with well-kept flowerbeds lie next to houses with peeling paint. There is some blight: boarded-up houses and empty lots. Children skip down the street singing, and there is a garden club.
But it is also a place where people are afraid to send children outside.
Still, residents said they were conflicted about the checkpoints. Sitting on his porch, James Tyger, 73, said the whole thing was a waste of taxpayer money and reminded him of military checkpoints in the Vietnam War.
“That ain’t going to solve no problems,” Mr. Tyger said. “They act like we’re criminals.”
Raymond Coates, 49, who grew up here and is a community activist, said it brought the Guantánamo Bay detention camp to mind.
“When you feel that you are in such danger from the enemy that you sacrifice your core principles, then you’re lost,” Mr. Coates said.
As night fell on Friday, more people gathered outside the recreation center. The memorial there, with a T-shirt tied to a tree, is for Melvin R. Seals, 30, who was shot dead in April while trying to escape his killers, residents said. He had hidden behind a metal box, which now has eight bullet holes. Two carloads of men hunted him down. One car stopped after the other had driven away, the residents said, and two men got out and shot Mr. Seals a few more times. One woman said the distinctive sound of the gunfire awoke her and she instinctively dived to the floor.
Believing Trinidad was a safe place to raise her two children, Adrienne Lambert, 37, moved in last December. Now she does not let them walk the three blocks to the recreation center. Standing in her rented row house’s sparsely furnished living room, Ms. Lambert said that although the neighborhood was pretty and peaceful on the surface, “it is like a jawbreaker: the closer you get into it, the hotter the jawbreaker gets.”
Another resident, Floyd Jones, 47, known as Winky, who was drinking a beer in his front yard and watching a patrol car idling at a checkpoint, said the police had accomplished nothing. The effort, he said, had just inconvenienced residents and led drug dealers to change locations temporarily.
“It’s only dangerous to outsiders,” Mr. Jones said, adding that the problem is drugs. At the same time, he pointed to a bullet hole over his porch and another in his uncle’s car.
“You got people buying weed,” Mr. Jones said. “Someone sells bad bud, heroin, coke; they come back and they shoot.”
The Rev. Clyde Hill, 75, said he wanted to move the church he founded 35 years ago out of Trinidad. While more women carrying babies line up for the free bread and pies he hands out to hungry residents, he said, fewer attend services. During the collection, Mr. Hill said, “I have the deacon lock the door, because I’m scared somebody is going to come in and rob us.”

New York Times