For hours yesterday, councilmembers grilled Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham about what took place over the course of several minutes outside Nook’s Barbershop in Deanwood on June 22. It was all captured on video. From the dais, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen played the entirety of the eight-minute video for Newsham, who was flanked by several of his assistant chiefs.
In the video, three plainsclothes officers exit an unmarked police car in front of the Sheriff Road NE barbershop. One officer, upon exiting, says, “We just want to [talk to] whoever owns the Volvo, about the tints. That’s it.” Minutes later, the situation has escalated as nearly a dozen officers have descended on the barbershop positioning themselves to detain a young black man sitting on a chair.
It’s not entirely 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, a BB gun was recovered, but bystanders accused MPD officers of planting the gun. In yesterday’s hearing, Newsham said that in addition to the BB gun, marijuana, PCP, and a gun clip were found, but no arrests were made.
After the incident, the video sparked outrage among community residents and activists. Many say it’s a prime example of aggressive over-policing tactics in Wards 7 and 8, D.C.’s poorest wards.
In a second meeting on policing in Wards 7 and 8 yesterday evening, residents continued to talk about their concerns. Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, organized organized both meetings. Councilmember Vince Gray, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie attended one or both. Between the two meetings, councilmembers, community leaders, activists, and residents voiced their concerns over MPD policing methods and practices that they feel are terrorizing their communities.
“I have no respect anymore for D.C. police officers,” said Ward 8 resident Roxanna Peterson, one of dozens of public witnesses who spoke to a host of councilmembers at the second meeting. Peterson detailed an incident in which she claims her car was misidentified and illegally towed by officers of the Seventh District. “They do what they want to do and don’t follow the rules,” she said. Several residents spoke, many of them sharing stories of police action that were far more egregious.
The bulk of the first hearing, though, centered on the Nook’s Barbershop incident, with councilmembers needling and interrogating Newsham over what transpired in the video.
Newsham cautioned the council that social media posts “don’t show the whole story,” but failed to convince councilmembers that what happened was justified. In a heated back-and-forth between Grosso and Newsham, Grosso—the only councilmember who voted against Newsham’s confirmation as police chief—said what he saw in the video was “the exact tactics” he saw as a teen growing up in Petworth in the late ’80s and early ’90s, alluding to the controversial “jump-out” tactics.
Both Allen and Bonds spent a significant amount of time trying to figure out why officers happened upon the barbershop in the first place—Newsham said they weren’t called to the spot—and what reasonable suspicion they had to ask the men for identification. Newsham said that officers don’t need any reasonable suspicion to ask for someone’s ID, but said one of the vehicles in front of the barbershop, a Volvo with tinted windows, is associated with illegal activity.
The officers involved in the Nook’s Barbershop incident were a part of MPD’s Gun Recovery Unit, a specialized unit that focuses its efforts on investigating and recovering illegal firearms in D.C., and is often at the center of allegations of police misconduct. Assistant Chief Robert Contee told Gray that MPD has recovered 250 illegal guns this year, but couldn’t tell Gray how many of those guns were recovered as a result of stop-and-frisks. “Don’t you think that’s important information,” Gray bemoaned.
Gray also grilled Newsham about its data collection, specifically as it pertains to the collection of all stop-and-frisks MPD conducts. Earlier this year, several activist organizations, including the ACLU of D.C., Black Lives Matter D.C., and the Stop Police Terror Project D.C., filed a lawsuit against the MPD for the stop-and-frisk data that they’re required to collect by law under the NEAR Act. In budget oversight hearings, Newsham admitted to Allen that the department had not been collecting all the data they are required to collect by law.
During the second meeting yesterday, at the Deanwood Recreation Center in Ward 7, both Gray and Allen were two of the last people to leave the gym after nearly four hours of listening to community activists, grieving family members, preachers, and teenagers share their experiences with the MPD.
At the request of Allen, per community and activists concerns, Newsham and MPD officers weren’t in attendance for the second hearing, as some people who testified said they didn’t feel comfortable telling their stories in front of police officers.
“You can’t discount anybody’s experience,” Allen said. “While I heard there are a lot of good officers on the force I can’t ignore residents and neighbors who experience the police in a way that is harmful and hurtful.”
During the hearing, the mother and uncle of Jeffrey Price—a 22-year-old who died after the illegal dirt bike he was driving crashed into a police cruiser on May 4th—discussed their skepticism of the MPD’s account of Price’s death.
“They killed my nephew,” Jay Brown told City Paper. “What we have is a police force operating with a crack-era mentality that is not needed today. Society, as a reward for gentrification, is trying to push African Americans out of the communities that they are embracing.”
Unlike the first hearing, which took place in the John A. Wilson Building and was mostly spent on testimonies and questioning between councilmembers and government officials, the Deanwood hearing was a gathering of residents both old and new.
In attendance were those who have pushed for changes for years, as well as newcomers like Melody Crosby, a resident of Anacostia who supports MPD because she says the drug gangs have intimidated her and other residents in her community.
“The only saviors that we have is the 7th District police,” Crosby said. “Anacostia is a beautiful neighborhood. I don’t understand why criminals get to live in a beautiful neighborhood.” Crosby, who is part of the W Street Home Owners Association, described how one of her neighbors had a cinderblock thrown through her window by gang members trying to intimidate her.
But not all shared Crosby’s sentiments about the MPD. Eugene Puryear, a community activist and core organizer of the Stop Police Terror Project DC said that “the whole city is starting to see the type of terroristic and militaristic policies all over Ward 7 and Ward 8, and people are shocked and appalled.”