MPD Chief Peter Newsham
MPD Chief Peter Newsham Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Video footage of police officers clearing protesters away from Lafayette Square ahead of President Donald Trump‘s photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church last month directly contradicts Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham‘s statements that his officers were not involved, the ACLU-DC says in a lawsuit filed today.

The footage, taken by independent filmmaker Roddy Hafiz, shows a line of what appear to be MPD officers walking down 17th Street NW toward G Street. At least two officers fire projectiles as Hafiz films. It is unclear whether the projectiles contain chemical irritants or rubber bullets.

“I’m media. I’m media. I’m moving back,” Hafiz says before an officer fires in his direction.

“Media. Don’t shoot. Just filming, just filming,” he says again before another officer fires over his head.

As the line moves toward Hafiz, one officer turns his back to the camera, showing a vest that says “Metropolitan Police.”

Another clip shows Dustin Foley and his 15-year-old daughter standing on the side of 17th Street NW coughing, having just escaped chemical gas, Foley says. As a group of MPD officers approaches through a scaffolding tunnel, Foley raises his hands and says “there’s a child over here, we can’t breathe,” as his daughter wails in the background.

“It’s OK, we’re just gonna stand here,” Foley says to the officers.

In an interview with LL, Foley says the officers continued through the tunnel and forced them further south on 17th Street NW and closer to another cloud of gas.

Foley and his daughter traveled to Lafayette Square from their Falls Church home to protest and deliver water and sandwiches to demonstrators, he says. Foley says he and his wife worked as civilian employees for a sheriff’s office in California before they moved to the D.C. area, and they have family members who are police officers. He says the encounter has changed his daughter’s attitude toward law enforcement. 

During a press conference the day after the violent clashes between police and protesters, Newsham told reporters he was told Trump would be moving in the area near Lafayette Square, but “the Metropolitan Police Department did not participate in that movement.”

The ACLU-DC, the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the firm Arnold and Porter filed a class action lawsuit against Trump, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and the heads of the U.S. Park Police, U.S. Secret Service, the D.C. National Guard, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons over the June 1 incident. The suit accuses defendants of violating protesters’ constitutional rights.

Today, they added Newsham as a defendant in light of what plaintiffs say is evidence of MPD’s involvement.

MPD spokesperson Dustin Sternbeck maintains that the agency was “not involved in the unscheduled movement of the president from Lafayette Square.”

“Nothing in that video that you sent indicated that was the movement of the president,” Sternbeck says. “I don’t know when that video was taken. It clearly was edited. I can’t comment on the source.”

Scott Michelman, the ACLU’s legal director, says MPD’s alleged conduct on June 1 and the chief’s subsequent statements “reflects a new level of brazenness.” 

“Here they are attacking people who were already fleeing,” Michelman says. “And then they had been misleading the public for over a month, and it sounds like still today, about their role in these shameful events.”

Hafiz laughed when asked about MPD’s insistence that its officers were not involved in clearing peaceful protesters away from Lafayette Square. “I have a plethora of evidence that contradicts that,” he says.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen recently proposed a limit on the police chief’s term to four years, effectively requiring Newsham to undergo a review next year. A draft of the proposal cites “‘tough on crime’ rhetoric by the Chief” [that] is counterproductive and is, in actuality, actively doing harm to communities of color, particularly when the District is continuing to experience a spike in homicides and is called to act with urgency.”

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso has circulated a letter calling for Newsham’s resignation, but no other councilmembers have signed on.