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It wasn’t the first time Peter Newsham saw the video. In fact, just minutes before the hearing was to begin, the Metropolitan Police Department chief wanted to watch the eight-minute video with his assistant chiefs one last time before several D.C. councilmembers and dozens of District residents watched it in its entirety during a two-part, all-day hearing to address police-community relations in Wards 7 and 8. Following the video, Newsham endured hours of intense questioning—at times heated—from more than half the Council.
The video captures an incident that many concerned District residents say is emblematic of the harassment they receive from the MPD on a regular basis. It shows three plainclothes officers exit an unmarked police car in front of Nook’s Barbershop on Sheriff Road NE in Deanwood, just inside the Maryland border.
One officer, upon getting out of the car, says, “We just want to [talk to] whoever owns the Volvo, about the tints. That’s it.” Minutes later, the situation has escalated and nearly a dozen officers have descended on the barbershop, positioning themselves to detain a young black man sitting on a chair.
It’s not clear from the video why the officers came to Nook’s and what prompted them to start asking the men hanging out outside—all of whom were black—to see their IDs. Upon searching the men, officers found a BB gun, but bystanders accused MPD officers of planting the gun, which Newsham denies. At the July 12 hearing, Newsham said that in addition to the BB gun, officers found marijuana, PCP, and a gun clip, but no one was arrested.
The hearing was rare: It is unusual for more than half of D.C.’s 13-member council to attend a hearing that doesn’t involve a vote or testimony surrounding pending legislation. It was also long and, at times, gut-wrenching as residents shared their stories of police harassment and violence in their neighborhoods.
The day after the hearing, Newsham, who didn’t attend the second hearing out of respect for public witnesses who didn’t feel comfortable sharing their stories in front of the police, visited Nook’s Barbershop. He approached the group of guys that regularly hangs out in the alley across the street from the barbershop—some of the same guys in the YouTube video—and asked them how he can help improve their relationship with police officers.
Newsham says he asked them, “Listen, how would you like it … if I took out my cell phone and stuck it in your face?”
“I said, ‘That’s not something that anybody would like,’ and they kind of shook their heads in agreement and said, ‘Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t be doing that.’”
Not everyone wanted to listen to what Newsham had to say, though.
“I just walked away [from him],” says 27-year-old Jake Robinson. Others did, too.
As of July 17, the homicide rate in D.C. is up 46 percent from this time last year, with 83 murders recorded thus far—the latest being the devastating shooting death of 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson in the evening on July 16, just a few blocks from Nook’s. Though total violent crime in the District is down this year, by 8 percent, Ward 8 and parts of Ward 7 are seeing a surge in homicides. (Total violent crime is down in both Wards this year.)
In response to the uptick in homicides, Newsham said during the hearing that he deployed 25 percent more cops to the streets in Wards 7 and 8. But even with more cops in the area, the violence—as evidenced by the shooting that killed Wilson, in which a woman and three men were also wounded—continues.
Many people don’t feel safe in their neighborhood, but at the same time, a good many residents don’t trust the police to help keep them safe either. Some feel like they’re in even more danger when officers arrive on the scene.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, organized the hearings in part as a response to the incident at Nook’s, but also to address a steady rise of community concerns about police conduct in the District—particularly in Wards 7 and 8.
Residents began requesting the meetings months before the Nook’s Babershop incident happened. In March, 54 local organizations signed their name to a letter co-authored by the local activist organizations Stop Police Terror Project DC and Black Lives Matter DC demanding that Allen and the rest of the Council convene a public hearing to address the alleged racism and violence by MPD.
So far this year, three people have been killed in police-involved confrontations: 24-year-old D’Quan Young was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer on May 9; 22-year-old Marquis Alston was shot and killed in a confrontation with officers on patrol on June 12; and 22-year-old Jeffrey Price was killed on May 4 after the dirt bike he was riding collided with a police cruiser.
In part of Newsham’s testimony, before attendees watched the video, he cautioned the Council that social media posts “don’t show the whole story.” In a follow-up interview with City Paper, Newsham elaborated, saying “I think that anyone who watched the social media snippet and saw some of the information—or misinformation… would have the very same questions.”
But even after hours of grilling, all of the councilmembers who watched seemed unconvinced that what transpired in the Nook’s Barbershop incident could be justified.
At the second hearing, held later that evening at the Deanwood Recreation Center, residents had the floor. They recounted their own interactions with MPD.
M.B. Cottingham was the subject of a video that went viral in September of last year.
In it, 39-year-old Cottingham—who makes his living as an ice cream vendor, is dressed in a red T-shirt and baggy gray sweatpants. An MPD officer is searching him. As the officer repeatedly pats down his pants around his genital area, Cottingham, visibly uncomfortable, reacts.
“I’m the guy that pretty much launched all of this right here,” he told the councilmembers at the hearing. The incident occurred on his birthday, in front of his 18-year-old son. He says officers pulled up on the street in front of where he, his son, and friends were hanging out, in the Bellevue neighborhood of Southwest, hopped out of their car, and immediately asked them to surrender any guns they had.
“Everyone almost simultaneously said, ‘We don’t have no guns.’ The officer then said, ‘Lift up your shirt.’”
He recounted the emotional trauma that ensued from the officer’s invasive search. “Those officers humiliated me in front of my child, in front of my friends, in my community, which my family paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for that house,” he said. “This is my community that I grew up in all of my life. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I’m sitting there with my family and friends. Talking about doing something to enjoy my birthday. And in this city, black men don’t get to see a lot of birthdays.”
Following Cottingham’s testimony, the ACLU of D.C. filed a lawsuit on July 18 against MPD Officer Sean Lojacono, who searched Cottingham. The suit alleges “unconstitutional and exceedingly invasive bodily search… without a warrant, reasonable suspicion, or probable cause.”
Other testimony came from 16-year-old Shawday Cunningham, who fought through tears as she recalled experiences of harassment from MPD officers.
“When I go outside, it’s officers following, saying ‘You can’t stand here … We go to the playground, they pull out their mace,” she said. “It is sad. It is really, really sad because a lot of youth are dying. Because they not getting the services the need… Y’all need to do better,” she told the councilmembers, after which At-Large Councilmember Robert White personally extended an invitation to meet one-on-one to discuss her experiences further.
It’s a hot-as-hell Monday morning, four days after the hearings, and Jake Robinson and his friends Jeremiah Johnson and Mike Ellis are sweating it out on the sidewalk across the street from Nook’s.
All three of them are 27 years old, grew up in the neighborhood together, and have been coming to Nook’s since they were kids. On this morning, they’re with about a half-dozen of their friends. They say they’re there on most days when they don’t have anything else going on—to hang out, catch up with each other, and, at least on this day, pass around blunts.
Though marijuana may be legal in the District, smoking it in public isn’t and carries a penalty of a fine and no more than 60 days in jail. For as long as Nook’s has been a popular spot for people in the neighborhood to hang out, it’s been just as popular a spot for MPD officers to patrol.
Johnson says that there are cops patrolling the area nearly every day. “If they don’t come around here all day, then we know they gonna be here at night,” he says. And, like the June 22 incident that was captured on video, their interactions with police haven’t been very positive.
“They walk up on you and brush you with their shoulder, assaultin’ you, but if you try and push them away then it becomes assault on you and you go to jail,” says Robinson. Ellis adds that often they “violate” him and his friends, asking them to “lift up” their shirts to check for guns, and then becoming hostile if people don’t comply.
There’s no general loitering law in D.C. that says Ellis and his friends can’t hang out in front of Nook’s—especially if no one has called to complain. Though marijuana use is frequent on the block, no one seems to mind.
“In the last year—in the last 365 days—since we been hanging right here, violence has went down 50 percent, statistically proven,” Ellis says.
A data check shows that he’s right. According to the MPD’s own crime map, data reveal that total crime within 1,000 feet of Nook’s Barbershop is down 50.52 percent this year compared to this point last year. And violent crime is down 58 percent.
“We’re policing our neighborhood with positivity. That’s all we doin’,” Ellis says. “We ain’t out here causin’ the crimes, we out here bringin’ the crime down without violence. Half these kids and stuff runnin’ around, or crackheads—whatever you may call them, addicts—runnin’ around here breakin’ laws, we might know them … They might be our nephews and nieces, or our friends, or neighborhood kids that grew up under us that we need to teach the right way so that they won’t be goin’ through … what we goin’ through.”
Ellis, Robinson, and Johnson all feel as though their race explains why MPD officers like to patrol around Nook’s Barbershop and repeatedly harass them. “They not comin’ wherever you live at Kalorama Road,” Ellis says to the reporters. “They’re not hanging out in front of Harris Teeter. But you see that in front of Sunny’s Carryout or in front of Nook’s Barbershop or in front of Little Jewel’s [daycare].”
Elsewhere in Deanwood, residents are split about what’s happening in their community and what should be done. Many are critical of the MPD and feel as though they are unjustly and unfairly targeting people in their community who aren’t committing violent crimes. But at the same time, some feel as though something needs to be done about the violence in their community.
Darlene Williams, a Deanwood community leader, said it is time for families and young people to change. Williams, who used to live in Stoddert Terrace, still lives in the area, although the projects have since been torn down. “The police ride past every day and they see the same people on the corner,” she says. “It is time for them to get up and get a job. Don’t be out on the block all the time.”
Meanwhile, Rev. Steve Young, pastor of Holy Christian House of Praise in Northeast, says that “some in the police department need to be stopped and frisked.” He’s concerned about certain officers’ conduct. Over the years, Young has buried many of the young people killed in the streets. A wall in the foyer of his church is filled up with funeral programs of lives lost to street violence. He makes a concerted effort to reach out to their families. Still, he sees a concurrent problem with police in his community.
“I know the young men out there and what you are seeing is illegal search and seizure and the violation of people’s constitutional rights,” Young says. “Those brothers aren’t hurting anybody. It just looks like a bunch of hillbilly cowboys who are rounding up people like cattle.”
Newsham echoes both of them, admitting that MPD has flaws. “Sometimes it’s trust of the police on the people that are being sought, but frankly sometimes the police when they’re interacting with the community, they do it a wrong way. Wrong can be a bunch of different ways that make it wrong or exacerbate the situation.”
He also acknowledges the department’s successes. “When you go to the scene, if somebody has been the victim of a crime and the police come and they do their job in an appropriate way, people are very, very thankful for that.”
Young may be critical of the police, but he’s still adamant that something needs to be done about the proliferation of illegal drugs and guns in Deanwood. “The drug market is profitable, but where are the drugs coming from? If [people] are getting high where are the rehabilitation programs to help them?”
For Councilmember Allen, the July 12 hearing was a necessary first step in addressing the growing divide between the MPD and the communities they serve. “It was painful to listen to at times,” he told City Paper in a follow-up interview. “But you’ve gotta make sure you give a space for people to tell you that they’re hurting.”
Greg Montross, the policy director of Stop Police Terror Project DC, which has been a harsh critic of the MPD, agrees. “I think it was a really important first step,” he says. But he’s skeptical about what will follow in the aftermath of the hearing.
It’s an understandable sentiment to want more police on the streets after a string of tragic shootings. Montross says his organization empathizes with that sentiment, but also stresses the importance of putting government funds and resources into other programs, such as ones focused on transportation, nutrition, housing, employment, and education in the Wards 7 and 8 communities.
“We’ve fallen into this pattern where community leaders often—maybe of the older guard—are the ones that are calling for more police and that allows the chief to say ‘Well, we’re hearing we need more police,’” Montross says. “But from our political leaders we need broader responses to these root causes that then leads to violence.”
For Ellis, Robinson, Johnson, and the rest of their friends who spend their days in front of Nook’s, it’s not the badge that they’re in conflict with, it’s who’s wearing it. On the day after the hearing, when Newsham showed up at Nook’s, Robinson says “Basically, [he was asking] how can he make the area better with police officers, I just walked away,” he says.
Ellis explains that he and his friends don’t feel like the officers who patrol their neighborhood respect their community. He says they’re not from the area—or even D.C.—and “can’t relate” to their lives and experiences. (Less than 20 percent of MPD officers were District residents as of 2013, according to MPD.)
Newsham says he isn’t giving up. “I will actually go up there a couple times again just to develop a conversation with them.”
“We need officers that can relate to us,” Ellis says. “How about you find some officers that grew up in D.C.—they might not even have to have grown up in this area, but they grew up in D.C. and can relate to [us]… then they can come to us and know how to talk to us.”
Due to a reporting error, this article originally misspelled M.B. Cottingham as C.M. Cottingham.