- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast Washington doesn’t look much different than it did more than a year ago.

Faded “Beware of Dog” signs sit crookedly in windows, decaying vacant buildings interrupt stretches of well-kept brick row houses, and the community’s working-class residents still congregate on porches and sidewalks.

But there’s a quiet in the neighborhood now that wasn’t here 14 months ago. That’s how long it’s been since anyone was killed here. That was the end of a five-month spate of violence in this 2-square-mile community that saw 10 people killed.

D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. represents the area and is clearly pleased with the accomplishment.

“Don’t you jinx me,” he said playfully, when asked about the reduction in violence.

The playfulness didn’t last. It was replaced by a resolve to maintain the peace.

“We’re not going to let this neighborhood slip away,” he said.

Trinidad, whose name the local neighborhood association says is thought to come from a former landowner who had lived on the island nation, is largely residential save for a few small businesses, a recreation center and a newly renovated elementary school.

The neighborhood — bordered by Mount Olivet Road to the north, Florida Avenue to the south, West Virginia Avenue to the west and Bladensburg Avenue to the east, has suffered its share of crime. But the spasm of violence last year was uncharacteristic, matching in five months the number of killings that took place in the neighborhood the three years prior.

It began shortly after 8 a.m. on April 16, 2008, when police found Tonette Gail Ferguson, 38, beaten to death in the 1600 block of Montello Avenue NE.

Later that night, 18-year-old Darvell Stewart was fatally shot in the 1100 block of Owen Place NE.

Eleven days later, Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier tripled the number of police officers on patrol in the city to 1,200 after four people were killed in eight shootings around the District during a five-hour period. One of the victims was Melvin R. Seals, 30, who was fatally shot at the intersection of Morse Street and Montello Avenue NE in Trinidad.

On May 31, seven people were killed during a nine-hour stretch. Three of the victims were from Trinidad. Duane Hough, 37, Anthony Mincey, 35, and Johnny Jeter, 24, were shot in the 1100 block of Holbrook Street NE as a result of an “argument on the block that erupted into gunfire,” Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes said at the time.

Five days later, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty called a press conference on the steps of Trinidad’s Joe Cole Fitness Center in the 1200 block of Morse Street Northeast.

Mr. Fenty stood at a podium flanked by his two top law enforcement officials, Chief Lanier and D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, and announced that police would take a drastic step to curb violence in the neighborhood.

Officers would set up checkpoints at strategic places around the neighborhood, where they would ask drivers for identification before they could be allowed into the neighborhood.

“The residents of the District of Columbia depend on their government to keep the city where they live, work and play safe,” Mr. Fenty said. “These initiatives allow us to deploy tools we already have available in a targeted way to have the greatest impact.”

Police attributed the violence to retaliatory shootings resulting from disputes between local gangs, or “crews,” as they are called.

Chief Lanier said gang members were driving into the neighborhood to attack their targets and then making speedy getaways. The checkpoints, she argued, would help keep out persons who had no legitimate business in the neighborhood.

The program ran from June 7 to 12. In the next six weeks, the killings abated.

But in the early hours of July 19, Alonzo Robinson, a 13-year-old who was visiting from Alabama to see his ailing great-grandmother, was fatally shot in the 1500 block of Holbrook Street NE. His mother and uncle were also wounded when a group of men sprayed bullets from a car.

Police said the men attacked Trinidad residents randomly as part of a dispute among neighborhoods after a man who lived in the nearby Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood was beaten at a nightclub on July 18. Seven others were injured as the men drove through the neighborhood, randomly firing at people.

Chief Lanier reinstated the checkpoints that day and left them in place for 10 days.

The checkpoints immediately drew fire from the American Civil Liberties Union and were later ruled unconstitutional in U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. But many residents and city leaders supported the police effort and credit it for breaking the spate of violence.

“It didn’t bother me one bit because I wasn’t doing anything I wasn’t supposed to do,” said resident Ricky Marsh, 53, as he sat on his porch one recent afternoon. “It kept some people out of here that didn’t belong.”

A group of men sitting with Mr. Marsh echoed the sentiments, saying the checkpoints served as a deterrent to people who didn’t live in the neighborhood.

Mr. Thomas said he did not support the checkpoints as a long-term strategy but saw it as a tough step needed in a dire circumstance. He said he thinks it was executed well, considering concerns of potential profiling at the checkpoints.

“The chief understood the gravity of the situation and didn’t need to get hit over the head twice,” Mr. Thomas said. “They quickly [understood] the sensitivity issues.”

In the two months after the checkpoints, there were three more fatal shootings.

Kennan Woods, 21, was found dead on Aug. 23. Andre Judd, 46, was killed on Oct. 3. Karon Shannon, 17, died on Oct. 19.

Since then, the killing has stopped.

Chief Lanier said part of the reason for the relative peace is that the department arrested the troublemakers.

“We took a lot of the violent gang members off the street,” Chief Lanier told The Times. “I’ve always said there’s a handful of people that can wreak havoc.”

Police made arrests in seven of the 10 homicides in Trinidad last year.

As of last week, violent crime in the Fifth Police District, which includes Trinidad, was down 8 percent compared to the same time last year. The reduction in killings in Trinidad has driven a 26 percent decline in killings in the Fifth District, according to preliminary police statistics.

The only killing on Trinidad’s streets this year occurred in June, when a U.S. Park Police officer fatally shot 24-year-old Trey Joyner. Police said they had received a tip about a man with a gun and that the shooting occurred during a struggle. But residents have challenged that version of events. The case is being investigated by the FBI.

Mr. Thomas said the reduction in violence has been a collaborative effort from stakeholders inside and outside of the community. He and others say police, residents, churches, the city government and public and private organizations worked to connect community members to the services they needed when tensions came to a head last year.

Many say the change has also been a function of improving community engagement and of longtime residents reaching out to newer residents.

“It has improved tremendously,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner David Hooper, who has lived in Trinidad for 37 years. “I believe there are brighter days in the Trinidad community.”

To show their appreciation, the New Samaritan Baptist Church in Trinidad awarded the Fifth Police District, led by Cmdr. Lamar D. Greene, with its Community Empowerment Award.

Anne Powell, a minister at the church and executive director of Samaricorp Community Development Corporation, said that when the violence broke out she saw a renewed effort by police and city officials to involve the community’s social service providers.

“I think the community has seen that we’re a real presence. We’re concerned and we’re available,” Ms. Powell said.

Samaricorp offers a number of services, including mentoring, a summer football and cheerleading program, parenting education and GED preparation.

Mr. Thomas’ office said Bethesda Baptist Church has also been a central organization for outreach and that the council secured grants for eight organizations to perform gang intervention work.

Residents also say a key player in combating youth crime has been the Trinidad Recreation Center, which in the last year has focused on offering appealing programs to young people and support services for parents.

The recreation center provides basketball and dance activities, computer access and space for students to do homework. Members of the Roving Leader Program, an outreach group that targets at-risk children, also work at the center to help mentor students.

The center’s director Anthony Higginbotham, 39, said one of the most helpful programs has been the Washington Enrichment and Cultural Arts Network, or WE CAN program, which mentors teenagers.

On a recent evening, a dozen teens gathered at the center for a WE CAN session. They discussed their feelings about the recently released movie “Precious,” about a young and poor teen mother’s struggles.

The teens talked freely about how their lives related to the movie and they later broke into smaller discussion groups for other activities. Many said they consider each other family, though some of them come from rival neighborhoods and are familiar with gang violence.

“We do all types of things as if we’re a family, not a program,” said Johnetta Simmons, 16. Miss Simmons said she started attending the program and has grown close to the executive director, Johnice Galloway-Miller, and her husband, Thandor Miller, who volunteers for WE CAN.

“They’re basically a second mother and father to me,” Miss Simmons said.

The teen said she used to act out in school and was generally disrespectful and determined to do “what she wanted to do.” She said she committed to turning her life around after her uncle was fatally shot.

The program helped her maintain a positive outlook even when she was shot three times in the leg last year while sitting in front of her house.

Antonia Cunningham, 22, was pregnant and homeless when she came to the program and asked for help last year. With Mrs. Galloway-Miller’s help, she found housing through the D.C. nonprofit Covenant House and enrolled in nursing school at the University of the District of Columbia.

“If it wasn’t for the program, I’d be living from house to house to house with my baby,” Miss Cunningham said.

Mrs. Galloway-Miller said the work was slow going at first.

“We had to prove ourselves by being consistent,” she said.

Mr. Higginbotham said the recreation center gives students the sense of trust and family that they need to feel safe and the WE CAN program has opened their minds to changing their lives.

“We don’t see these young people as problems, as something that’s broken and needs to be fixed,” Mrs Galloway-Miller said.

Residents say engagement has also come from the community. Some say newer residents in Trinidad were not communicating with police and were not taking responsibility for neighborhood safety as much a year and a half ago.

Though unfortunate, some say the spate of violence helped those residents become more engaged, and that has contributed to public safety awareness in the neighborhood. Other residents say the community has taken a more active role in reaching out to younger residents.

“I tell these kids, ‘You can’t hang out on the corner.’ I see young men hanging out on the corner and I stop and speak to them,” said ANC Rosetta Davis. “I think they’re taking it into account that somebody cares about them.”

Mr. Hooper said he has also taken it upon himself to regularly speak to young people about taking pride in their community.

Many residents say the combination of police presence, community outreach and civic involvement has paid off and they hope to never relive the experiences of 2008.

“It’s gotten a lot better around here,” said resident Dennis Davis, 30. “It used to be hell.”

• David C. Lipscomb can be reached at .

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