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Last week’s appointment of Interim Chief Peter Newsham to become the Metropolitan Police Department’s new chief came as no big surprise to those who have worked with him in the department, the Wilson Building, and in the communities where his officers serve.
The 52-year-old Newsham, with 28 years on the force—half of them as an assistant, deputy, or interim chief—knows the city, and the department, as well as any candidate could. He’s generally respected by the rank-and-file when it comes to policing, and he has managed to forge his own reputation as a leader despite years of being the main enforcer for former Chief Cathy Lanier, who was not particularly well liked by the rank-and-file.
The choice of Newsham is a sign that Mayor Muriel Bowser is not seeking wholesale change and is looking to preserve the status quo that Lanier established during her decade-long tenure, one that Newsham helped implement. During that time, MPD resolved use of force problems that once had been endemic and became a generally more professional police force that worked well with its federal partners and achieved an overall decrease in crime. Though there are competing versions of Lanier’s legacy, particularly among police union members and officials who feel that she and Newsham drove mid-career officers away with oppressive scheduling and discipline policies, it is undisputed that Lanier connected with the public and the media like few politicians are able to.
Now that he’s out from under Lanier’s shadow, and with just a D.C. Council confirmation hearing standing between him and the top cop job, Newsham is ready to put his stamp on a department that he helped reform but one that also is recovering from an attrition problem made worse by entrenched salary negotiations and union grievances he presided over.
On the one hand, he is a known entity and a decisive leader who projects a no-bullshit air of authority, so there should be few surprises.
On the other hand, he has a personal history of domestic and alcohol abuse and a professional history stained by a high-profile mass arrest gone bad. Some might see some of the allegations he has sustained over the years to be disqualifying in a chief. But those allegations are more than a decade old, and Newsham has done little if anything to suggest he’s one to repeat major mistakes.
Former MPD detective Stephen Slaughter, a department manager in the operations center at the U.S. Department of Transportation and an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 8, says Newsham’s past is and should be taken seriously. “Yeah, it matters,” Slaughter says. “It shows the city and the police that you can do certain things and still be out in the community, policing. It says ‘we got your back.’”
Yet D.C. councilmembers will likely question Newsham and confirm him after they hear what he has to say, which doesn’t figure to be much different than what he has said in the past. “I think he’s a fine pick and has done a very good job as interim,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. “I did ask about some press reports of his earlier personal problems related to his divorce and child custody, but have been assured that these have been looked at and are not disqualifying.”
Cheh also sees Newsham as an upgrade from his predecessor in an important area: “He has a very good reputation among the rank-and-file, and that’s important because if Chief Lanier could be faulted, it was her rocky relationship and the reported low morale among the officers.”
Speaking for his community, among the hardest hit by crime, Slaughter says that Newsham must continue to build confidence in the MPD to improve public safety. “Crime [overall] is down, but people don’t feel safe,” he says, pointing to stabbings and shootings in his ward on an almost daily basis.
Reducing crime is but one challenge Newsham faces, according to Slaughter, who does not see more police as the answer in his community so much as better policing by the officers already there. “They don’t need an overhaul,” he says. “They need to advocate for the good ones and get rid of the abusive ones. Workloads are heavy, but you can’t just throw more cops at people. People are reluctant to talk to police as it is, because whenever they show up it’s for something negative.”
With these and other issues in mind, Loose Lips spoke with Newsham last week for close to an hour to address the state of affairs at MPD, its mission and relationships in the communities, his own personal and professional record, and the department’s relationship with its officers. Excerpts of the interview, which has been edited for clarity, follow:
LL: When Mayor Bowser tapped you to become interim chief, what were your top priorities?
Newsham: I came in with two critical things [in mind]. First, trust in the community is the most important issue. I don’t know if people appreciate how hard that can be. When part of your job is to take people into custody, it’s very hard to maintain that. But what we do is help people. So I knew I had to talk to communities about use of force, to build trust so they feel comfortable sharing what they have to say. Second, I wanted to address officer morale. I met with as many officers as I could because I wanted to hear some of the things that would make their jobs better.
LL: Such as?
Newsham: Some basic things, like uniforms, the weight of the equipment belts they wear, and resources in general. I also heard about management failures to address mistakes in a training way as opposed to discipline. I thought long and hard about that, and I think they are right. What I learned is that it’s important for the chief to continue to have those discussions.
LL: What else did you learn?
Newsham: Policing has been demonized. We’re not perfect, and I think [that demonization] has had an impact on morale. I want to make this a place where people want to work and feel good about what they do. The main thing to motivate officers is to say thank you for their service and to recognize them for their good work.
LL: The department just settled one of the most controversial grievances from the Lanier era, back compensation for the All Hands On Deck policy. (The settlement itself is controversial, LL is told, because members felt left out of the decision and received less than they were entitled to after years of costly litigation.) What is your relationship with the union like?
Newsham: With AHOD we were able to come to an agreement, which was a positive step for both of us. It showed good will on the part of management with labor. Protracted legal battles are not productive. There’s a tendency to dig in heels and say things that are not productive. We all have the same goal, and when I work with the union I try to remind them and myself that we serve the community, and everything else we work out along the way. We can agree to have disagreements behind closed doors.
LL: The police union is fractured, and in fact just held a vote on a referendum to recall its chairman. (Fraternal Order of Police Chairman Matthew Mahl narrowly escaped a recall last week by five percentage points, as just 387 out of some 3,400 members turned out to support him.) How will that affect your approach to dealing with them?
Newsham: I think it’s going to be the same. We’ve had a lot of successes, gotten rid of a number of issues through mediation. There’s a give and take on both sides. One of our failures in the past was in [not] notifying the union that schedule changes are coming. But we can work on that, and if they have a grievance brewing they can bring it to us and nip it in the bud.
LL: The police union chairman, Matt Mahl, barely survived a recall. His members see him as a failed pick who capitulates to you to curry favor and perhaps feather his own nest. How does that affect your view of him?
Newsham: I’m not in a position to discuss the union’s internal matters. I don’t know what’s going on. I meet with Matt regularly, and he is passionate about defending his membership. He has won some battles, and we have resolved issues during the course of weekly meetings. Matt does not agree with me frequently, and we agree to disagree, then work towards middle ground.
LL: I need to ask you about some of the problems from your past that resurfaced recently in a FOX5 story that detailed instances of alleged domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and wrongful arrests. (Records from Newsham’s divorce detailed some of these allegations, and court records obtained by FOX5 examined the 2002 Pershing Park incident, in which Newsham claimed responsibility for ordering hundreds of arrests of anti-globalization protesters without adequate warning. Police cordoned off the park, handcuffed the protesters, and left them on the ground for hours. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit later ruled that Newsham could be liable for those orders, and the department was forced to settle lawsuits for upwards of $13 million—most of it paid by the District—amid allegations of tampering of police files. Civil rights advocates still cite the Pershing Park case as a serious lapse in judgment.)
Newsham: I gave public testimony on Pershing Park. I stand by my decision. At the time, I believed protesters would’ve done the same things after they left the park, and I thought it was in the best interests of the city and the public to stop them. The court determined that was the wrong decision. But you have to make hard decisions, and at the end of the day the department has become better for that experience. President Trump’s inauguration shows it. I’m proud of that. MPD is the very best at it.
LL: The FOX5 report dredged up allegations of domestic abuse and alcohol abuse, among other things. (Newsham did not comment for the FOX report, which disclosed that he had his service revolver taken away from him years ago when he was found passed out on the sidewalk.)
Newsham:More than 15 years ago I had a custody dispute with my ex-wife over custody of our two children. I’m not going to talk in detail about it. It was a difficult time for my family. I’m not going to criticize someone who I loved and who is the mother of my children. I’m not going to dispute criticisms. It’s something I have to live with. It troubles me to have my family have to hear unfair things that will be said. They didn’t sign up for that.
LL: What’s your relationship with alcohol?
Newsham: I don’t know what to say to that. I don’t want to get into that narrative.
LL: Let’s get back to policing. Recently, Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray proposed a $64 million plan to provide incentives for senior officers to push back their retirement, as a means to mitigate violent crime in his ward and elsewhere east of the Anacostia River, and among certain other communities west of the river. What’s your stance on reducing crime from a resources standpoint?
Newsham: There’s no way in the world the police department will be successful in addressing [public safety] alone. There’s a recipe for criminal behavior. Lots of things contribute to it—education, jobs, housing. The mayor has held other agencies accountable, but I don’t know if folks in politics understand that if you go out and say the answer is more police. … Look, anyone who knows anything about crime knows that increasing the size of the department doesn’t have anything to do with reducing crime. We had the lowest violent crime rate last year since 2009.
LL: But according to supporters of more police, crime is so bad in their communities that just the presence of more police can only serve to deter violence that has claimed innocent lives as well as intended targets.
Newsham: People don’t feel safe. It’s our responsibility to make them feel safe. The mere fact of being in the neighborhoods helps. Getting officers to understand that is the thing, and some get that. The community has to get that too. Faith-based leaders are willing to assist in terms of reaching out to youth and returning citizens. If we look at where we [once] were, and at where we are today, if this progress continues we will hardly have any crime someday.
LL: Hand-in-hand with the debate over number of police is policing policies. Chief Lanier was credited with being a champion of community policing, although there is a view that MPD actually has gotten away from that model in favor of more fixed or standing posts, from which officers respond to service calls. What kind of model do you prefer? (LL shared observations from reporting at Barry Farm last year, where residents said the police do not engage unless to search or arrest them, and that they don’t engage with the police either.)
Newsham: I don’t like hearing that. I would prefer our officers are out in the community. I don’t want that anecdote to be attributed to the whole department. Usually if I see that and point it out, officers agree that they should be out there interacting. The other day I showed up unannounced at the Mellon Mart over on MLK Jr. Avenue (in Anacostia), and officers were out there, interacting with people, and that’s what I like to see. We have an increasingly young department, and I want to instill that kind of policing.