WASHINGTON – A plan to thwart gun violence in the nation’s capital is under attack from some critics who say it may trick citizens into forgoing their constitutional rights.
Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier has unveiled a program called the Safe Homes Initiative, which seeks to reduce violent crime by having residents consent to warrantless searches of their homes for guns.
Critics are pushing back, warning homeowners that they could be forfeiting their rights when they sign a one-page consent form that police would present before entering a home. Under the terms of the plan, the signatures would signify their “informed consent” to the search, which would otherwise be illegal without a warrant.
Johnny Barnes, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, is urging residents in the targeted neighborhoods not to comply with the police searches.
“We’re very troubled by the fact that police will bang on doors and be asking to enter and asking people to sign a waiver of some sort, and they will claim that that’s informed consent,” said Barnes. “History disagrees.”
Lanier defended the program, stressing that it targets the root of the gun-violence problem. “The goal is to keep guns out of the hands of kids,” she said.
In recent days the police chief clarified how the program would launch. Officers would go door-to-door to pass out literature, but instead of asking for consent to begin an immediate search, they would allow residents interested in participating to make appointments.
Opponents of the initiative had vigorously argued against it asking for instant access. “Most people believe they have to let police in, and that’s not informed consent,” said Barnes.
Critics also challenged Lanier’s promise of amnesty to homeowners if officers find guns in their homes. The consent form rules out prosecution for illegal possession, but the amnesty would not apply if the gun were linked to a crime.
There are also questions about what would happen if officers found drugs or discovered that a resident was an illegal immigrant. Asked whether an immigration violation would be reported, Lanier responded, “Absolutely not.”
A similar program in St. Louis was eventually discontinued as resident participation dwindled. Lanier said the Washington program is not a replica of the St. Louis program, and that she would not use a cookie-cutter approach to implementing it. Both programs rely heavily on cooperation and trust between homeowners and officers.
That mutual affection could be tough to come by in Washington Highlands, one of three neighborhoods targeted for the launch. A young teen was shot and killed there by an off-duty police officer last year, and some residents say they have no intention of giving officers a free pass into their homes.
“The mentality of the people in this community is always the distrust of the police officers,” said William Lockridge, a school board member who lives in the neighborhood.
Lockridge is canvassing the neighborhood, urging residents to refuse to answer their doors when officers come knocking. “I don’t think [the Safe Homes Initiative is] going to be successful,” he said. I think it’s going to cause more problems.”
Lanier is optimistic that the program will achieve its most basic goal: ferreting out illegal guns while making the most of a limited police budget. “It is not costing us anything,” she said. “I think this is a great use of resources.”