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Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham will resign his D.C. post to lead the police force in Prince William County, Virginia. The news of Newsham’s departure after a 30-year career in the District broke late Tuesday night in a press release from his new employer. Local leaders, and apparently even MPD’s public information officer, were left playing catch up.
Mayor Muriel Bowser released a statement after the announcement from Prince William County thanking Newsham for his 31 years of service leading MPD “through a time of great change and challenge for our city and our nation.” She says she will announce an interim chief soon.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson learned Newsham is leaving from a Washington Post reporter. He says in a statement that he was “as surprised as everyone else” to learn of Newsham’s exit. “I’m sorry to see him leave after roughly three decades—a lot of service to the citizens of the District. Yet this presents an opportunity to try new approaches to law enforcement and new strategies to fight violent crime,” the chairman’s statement says. “We’re losing a good cop, but sometimes a fresh face can be a [sic] good, too.”
Newsham’s departure comes in the middle of a public health emergency, as homicides in the District are increasing, after the Council made modest cuts to his agency’s budget over his objections, and after a summer of sustained protests over police brutality in D.C. and nationwide. Since September, two young Black men, Deon Kay and Karon Hylton-Brown, have died following interactions with MPD officers. Officer Alexander Alvarez shot and killed Kay while responding to a report of a man with a gun. Hylton-Brown died in a moped crash after being pursued by officers for allegedly not wearing a helmet.
The Post‘s metro editor, Mike Semel, chimed in, noting in a tweet that “it’s very rare for an MPD chief to leave for a nearby suburb.”
Newsham’s exit also sets up a potential battle between Bowser and the D.C. Council, which passed sweeping police reforms this summer, and has grown increasingly critical of MPD. Bowser will nominate a new chief, and the Council will vote on that person’s confirmation.
Ward 4 Councilmember-elect Janeese Lewis George, one of three new members, is a vocal critic of MPD and Newsham. She will replace Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, a more moderate Democrat who has been more deferential to law enforcement. In a tweet, Todd thanked Newsham for his service. George responded only with the exclamation mark emoji.
Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto also replaced a more moderate, police friendly pol in Jack Evans, and has expressed support for criminal justice reform.
At-Large Councilmember-elect Christina Henderson is replacing her former boss, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who has been a reliable critic of Newsham from the start. Grosso cast the lone dissenting vote against Newsham’s confirmation in 2017 and has formally called for his resignation. The departing councilmember said goodbye to the chief with three hand-waving emojis.
During a phone conversation with LL Wednesday morning, Henderson was a bit more diplomatic. She says she’s grateful for Newsham’s service and looks forward to the next chapter for MPD.
She, like everyone else, was surprised, especially because she had just met Tuesday afternoon with Newsham, the mayor, and other members of the executive team to discuss major issues facing the city. Henderson says Newsham gave a presentation and she shared with him her concern about gun violence.
“I had no feeling or indication that he was planning to leave,” Henderson tells LL. “I think we left it as, ‘I’m looking forward to working together on gun violence and policing.'”
In a new chief, Henderson says she’s looking first for someone with a record of community policing. It’s up to Bowser whether to promote from within the department or expand the search to an outside hire. Henderson says she sees the value in both options, but notes that “internal candidates are very hard when an agency is already unpopular.”
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, another police and Newsham critic, writes in a text that “No one is crying that Newsham is leaving. In fact, I still want the department to answer my questions about a number of concerning issues with MPD that I emailed last week.”
White’s letter, sent Nov. 17, lists several questions about MPD’s controversial gun recovery unit and cites a recent report showing racial disparities in the unit’s enforcement.
“I am most concerned about the complaints that speak to MPD officers that are failing to respect community members’ dignity and constitutional rights,” White writes in his letter.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, thanks Newsham and highlights the unique responsibilities of the District’s top cop.
“Most importantly for the residents of the District of Columbia, the leadership of a Chief of Police is consequential in ways few other positions are,” Allen’s statement says. “The nation is changing, and law enforcement in the District–and what we expect from a Chief of Police–must evolve, as well.”
Allen recently championed a sweeping police reform bill that includes changes for discipline, training, and use of force, which Newsham called a “knee jerk reaction.” Allen and Newsham also clashed over a sentencing reform bill that gives people who committed violent crimes before the age of 25 a shot at release. It’s now headed to the Council, where it is expected to pass. Newsham’s outspoken opposition to the bill conflicts with Bower’s support.
And in budget legislation passed earlier this year, the Council limited the chief’s term to four years, meaning Newsham would have come up for reconfirmation in 2021.
Newsham will begin his new gig, which comes with a nearly $70,000 pay cut, in February 2021. He did not immediately respond to LL’s email, but told the Post Tuesday night that his departure is bittersweet and he looks forward to his new gig after 31 years in D.C.