Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham’s appointment to head the department has sparked opposition from civil rights groups for his performance during his tenure as interim chief and before he was appointed interim chief.
Newsham has worked as interim chief since Cathy Lanier stepped down in September and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced Newsham will be taking on the chief position Feb. 23.
Newsham has indicated support for tighter gun control laws and stronger policy on punishing repeat offenders.
Newsham has been criticized by civil rights groups for his treatment of protesters in 2002, when MPD officers corralled and arrested hundreds of anti-globalization demonstrators in Pershing Park.
Protesters were allegedly given no instruction to leave and were surrounded by police and removed from the area. Some protesters were then hog-tied for up to 24 hours.
The protesters sued MPD and were represented by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, a nonprofit civil rights organization.
Partnership for Civil Justice Fund Executive Director Mara Verheyden-Hilliard said these mass arrests constitute a gross civil rights violation.
“It was an extreme mass violation of civil rights. There is no excuse for this having occurred. It’s not the kind of thing that can occur without great, deliberate action on the part of the commanders,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.
After the Pershing Park lawsuit, the District enacted new laws concerning mass arrests. The District also agreed to pay $8.25 million to protesters to settle the lawsuit.
Newsham said the decisions he made at Perishing Park were not in the best interest of the public.
“That decision that I made at the time I thought was in the best interest of public safety and the best interest of the District of Columbia. I subsequently learned that that was the wrong decision, and our police department as a whole has changed significantly in the way that we handle first amendment assemblies,” Newsham said.
Other activists have filed complaints over Newsham’s mass arrests on Inauguration Day this year.
Two hundred and fourteen people were indicted on charges of felony rioting on Inauguration Day. Police used pepper spray and other devices to control the crowd and some vandalism occurred the morning of the inauguration.
Verheyden-Hilliard said these mass arrests indicate a trend in Newsham’s behavior as an officer.
“As recently as a month ago, Peter Newsham violated those laws that are on the books that he is well-aware of in conducting the mass arrests of people on Inauguration Day, as well as the mass use of force against people that were demonstrating,” Verheyden-Hilliard said. “In our view, he is a repeat offender and he is not fit to be chief of police.”
Newsham said his officers made very good judgment on how to handle the rioters throughout downtown D.C.
After the inauguration, a Police Complaints Board report was published, criticizing tactics used during the arrests on Inauguration Day. The PCB oversees the Office of Police Complaints, a police oversight office within MPD, and dispatched monitors to observe interactions between city police and the public.
“We are going to take a very, very close look at that. We respect the ability to take a look at what we do as a police agency and if we can improve upon what we did, we will certainly do that,” Newsham said.
Bowser said Newsham and the police department have been working since the Pershing Park incident to improve crowd control strategies and tactics.
“Chief Newsham has been a leader in helping to transform our department and that is one of the reasons I chose him to serve as Chief,” Bowser wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“A lot of those other cities had continued to have an increasing number of homicides whereas we have been able to stem the tide,” Newsham said.
In 2015 and 2016, murder rates spiked in D.C. and in cities across the country. One hundred and sixty-two homicides were recorded in 2015, while 135 were reported in 2016.
Despite the high murder rate, 2016 boasted D.C.’s lowest violent crime rates in over a decade. 2016 saw a 5 percent decrease in total crime reported, down to 35,252 from 37,059.
Bowser praised Newsham’s commitment to lowering crime rates in the city.
“He values transparency and has the knowledge to ensure that we continue to reduce crime all across the city,” Bowser wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Newsham said he was grateful Bowser nominated him for this position.
“I was very honored when the mayor asked me to do it. I really love this city and I love this police department,” Newsham said.
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