Exclusive Interview With Departing MPD Chief Peter Newsham
By December 3, 2020 0 1544•
On Tuesday, Nov. 24, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office was surprised by news that the District’s chief of police, Peter Newsham, will be leaving his post by Feb. 1 to serve as chief of police in Prince William County, Virginia. A 31-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department — whose career will soon span eight presidential inaugurations — Newsham has headed the department since May of 2017.
The Georgetowner recently sat down with Newsham on a Zoom call to discuss policing in the nation’s capital in the era of COVID, the Black Lives Matter protests, conflicts with the District Council and rising crime in Georgetown.
Fresh out of college in 1989, Newsham joined the department just as Washington, D.C., was gaining a reputation as the nation’s “murder capital,” with close to 500 homicides per year. “D.C. was a very, very violent city,” he recalled, and MPD was “not a well-resourced police department.” He quickly moved up the ranks, serving “four tours in three wards” and advancing from lieutenant to captain. In the late 1990s, according to the Washington Post, then-Chief Charles Ramsey selected Newsham to “oversee a department overhaul after concerns surfaced … over the high number of deadly shootings by officers.”
In 2000, Newsham earned a law degree from the University of Maryland and was appointed by Ramsey to serve as commander of the Second District, which includes Georgetown. By 2002, he was promoted to assistant chief in charge of the Office of Professional Responsibility, housing the Internal Affairs Division and the Civil Rights and Force Investigation Division.
“Policing in the District is like drinking water out of a firehose,” Newsham quipped. Playing a major role in nearly every high-profile MPD investigation in those years, Newsham investigated the Chandra Levy case and the shootings at the National Zoo, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Navy Yard. Massive events in the District also challenged MPD, with huge crowds for the Obama inaugurations and championship celebrations for the Washington Capitals, Nationals and Mystics.
Looking back on those years, however, Newsham is most proud of his work to reform the MPD from within. “I guess the thing I’m most proud of in my career is actually the second third of [it], where we tried to transition this police department from being one that was not in a very good place to being one of the best, and a national leader in policing,” he said. “We had a group of committed police executives who did a lot of work to change the culture, reduce our uses of force and improve our policies and investigative abilities.”
For Newsham, few years have been as dramatic or challenging as 2020. The year “started out like any other,” he recalled, but, by March, with the mayor declaring a public health emergency, “life for all of us changed dramatically.”
Newsham credits Mayor Bowser with understanding how best to approach the enforcement of health measures during the pandemic. “One of the things I really respect about the mayor is that she really has a good sense as to what is and what is not acceptable,” he said. “Nobody here in Washington, D.C., wants to see the police storming” into establishments “because folks aren’t wearing their masks or folks are crowding,” he said. “One of the cool things about Washington, D.C., is that you really don’t need the police coming in and giving fines and doing whatever to enforce things. It’s really about public education.”
He noted with pride that the department has been fully operational since the emergency was declared in early March. “The men and women of MPD have put themselves and their families in jeopardy to do this job … We have had over 350 of our officers test positive since March. A lot of them have fully recovered and gone back to work. But we had one of our school resource officers — Senior Police Officer Keith Williams — who passed away as a result of COVID. A lot of folks get credit where credit is due, from our health care workers to our firefighters, but our police officers ought to get credit, too. They’ve gone out there and continued to do their work.”
Then, by late spring, with COVID spiraling, mass protests over systemic racism and policing came to the District. “Fast forward to the murder of George Floyd in May and you have the unrest that followed. And I’ve got to tell you that was a trying time for all of us here policing,” Newsham said. “The unrest continued throughout the summer.”
Shortly after the Nov. 3 presidential election, MPD had to quell street clashes between pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators following the Million MAGA March. “For me, watching that, was really kind of a sign of the divisiveness that had developed in our country,” Newsham said. “There were people who came with the purposeful intention of getting into physical disputes because of the result of an election and — I tell you what — the way our police department responded, particularly after COVID and after the summer they went through, and some of the experiences they had on the front lines with people who were not particularly crazy about the police, I was amazed at the way the men and women of this agency responded in a professional way and really prevented the level of violence that we could have had here in Washington, D.C.”
Newsham expressed alarm, however, about the number of prisoners given early release due to coronavirus concerns. When prisoners are released early, he said, there’s a “domino effect” — crimes of retaliation rise, the victims’ trust in the justice system is damaged, witness intimidation increases and more homicides remain unsolved. “There’s a bill before the Council right now which is going to pass which will allow for the early release of about 500 of our most violent offenders. And I am very, very, concerned about that for all of those reasons,” Newsham said. “I think it’s a public safety issue and I’ve voiced my opinion on it.”
Though Newsham did not wish to discuss his reasons for leaving, he did not hesitate to criticize Council members who, in his description, have taken rash steps to “defund the police” at the expense of public safety and who have made what he considers knee-jerk efforts to reform the department. “I have spent the better part of the last 18 years reforming this police department,” he said, commenting that new and veteran officers alike have come to see “change in a police agency [as] essential.” In his view, “You have to evolve with the times and the wishes of your community and that’s what we did with the MPD.”
Newsham agrees that systemic racism exists in society, but takes issue with those who focus exclusively on the phenomenon within MPD. “If you think you’re going to resolve systemic racism simply by doing things with your police department, then you’re really missing the mark,” he said. “Systemic racism is exactly that. It’s systemic.”
MPD’s recent statistics on diversity bolster Newsham’s confidence that systemic racism is being addressed. “One of the things we’re very proud of is the fact that our police department almost exactly reflects the community we serve. I think it’s within a couple of percentage points on any given race. The one demographic where we don’t meet our population is [on] women. We only have 22 percent of our members who are women. So that’s one we have to work on. It should be 50 percent.”
Newsham said he supports reform measures to increase community policing and counseling initiatives, but is weary of what he perceives to be hasty and ill-considered measures promoted by certain Council members. While he acknowledged that MPD might have to handle more calls than is optimal, responding to close to 600,000 calls for service annually, “People call the police and expect somebody to come. If you haven’t given some thought as to who’s going to come when your community calls and you’re just trying to reduce the size of the police department without thoughtfully considering that, I just think it’s reactionary and too quick.”
Furthermore, Newsham argued, the community-sensitive training that MPD already provides its officers would have to be implemented before such community policing or counseling steps could be taken. “When you do find another group to take on some of the tasks the police are doing,” Newsham said, “you better be sure those folks have the same exact training the police department has been giving their folks for years, because they’ll just as likely be biased in their actions in the community as any other human beings. So all of the training on de-escalation we got, and understanding your implicit biases and cultural sensitivity, you’re going to have to find a whole new workforce and train them up. So I think they’re putting the cart before the horse on this one.”
Pointing out an area he believes has been unfairly targeted by activists, Newsham said: “There’s no real data to support that the folks in our community who are experiencing mental health crises are being injured or killed by the police department here in Washington, D.C. I attribute that to all of the training and experience and the disposition of all the folks we’ve been able to hire … We have mental health crises in our community every single day, where we have police respond compassionately and empathetically and are able to resolve those situations. And that goes unnoticed, because the only time you hear about it is when something bad happens.”
Newsham emphasized that he supports most of the police reform measures passed recently by the Council, commenting that critics who paint him as opposed to police reform are off base. “Some people are suggesting that the police department, or Newsham, has been resistant to reform. But, if you look back on the reform legislation the Council passed, we only had a couple of small issues with a couple of the items,” he said. He asserted that the Council was putting into law reforms that MPD had already put into place. “What they did is they codified things we already had in our general orders, so they made laws out of policies we were already abiding by. So, to suggest that the police department was resistant to that, I think is unfair and inaccurate.”
Calls by Council members to release the names of officers involved in violent arrests before the officers have had a chance to have their cases reviewed internally is another of Newsham’s concerns, since such publicity might put them and their families in danger. “However,” he said, any officer “who is criminally charged in the District — it’s a no-brainer — we’ll release their name.”
Unsurprisingly, Newsham draws the line at slashing MPD’s budget. Given D.C.’s population increase of close to 200,000 over the last 20 years, reducing the department’s budget to what it was in the 1990s, he argued, is a “potential public safety issue and, as the chief of police, I have to say that — and I will continue to say it — I truly believe, in my heart of hearts, that was not well thought out and was reactionary and it’s going to potentially impact public safety in the District.”
Addressing Georgetown’s recent spate of robberies and gun crimes — including a shooting death on K Street, brazen daylight holdups near Georgetown University and a dramatic MPD helicopter chase on the Whitehurst Freeway — Newsham cited increasing gun violence in the District, lax penalties for gun offenses and spillovers of crime from other parts of the city during the pandemic. “In the last three years, gun violence in particular, and in this last year with COVID, stolen autos and carjackings have increased dramatically,” Newsham acknowledged. “I attribute that gun violence to the prevalence of illegal firearms that we have in our community and to the lack of consequences” for gun offenses, he said. “We’ve got to start taking these gun offenders seriously. And we’re not.”
Newsham reassured Georgetowners that there’s no reason for alarm, however. “You do not have to be afraid,” he said. “The likelihood of being a victim of a violent crime in Georgetown is very rare in comparison to the number of folks who visit there. But it is unsettling to know that somebody has been robbed or shot in your community.”
Over the years, Newsham has appreciated working with the people of Georgetown. “My experience with the folks who live in Georgetown is that they have always been very cooperative and forthcoming,” he said. To help reduce crime in the area, he advised residents to be sure to be attentive as witnesses — recording if they can — and to avoid leaving their cars running unattended or walking unaccompanied at night. He also encourages businesses to take full advantage of MPD’s camera rebate program. “I know Georgetown has an excellent camera system,” Newsham said, but he would like every business to take part.
Referring to the challenges faced by MPD during the pandemic and the protests, Newsham commented that “the morale of the police officers … has been remarkable under these circumstances. It really has. For them to go out and do the work they do … with not a lot of complaining. I’ve seen a lot of officers out there and they’ve heard all the criticisms of police. Some of them stood on police lines over the summer where people have thrown rocks and bricks, spat on them and in some instances thrown urine on them, and the men and women of this agency, sworn and civilian, keep coming to work. So, talk about being impressed. You know, they’re doing their J.O.B.”