DC’s new top cop reflects on handling of 2002 protests

WASHINGTON — Moments after Mayor Muriel Bowser announced his appointment as D.C.’s new police chief, Peter Newsham addressed criticism of his handling of the 2002 World Bank protests in Pershing Park.

As a result of that incident, the District ended up settling with nearly 400 protesters and bystanders — who had sued over mass arrests — for more than $8 million.

The crowd had not been warned to disperse before the roundup. Some were held for more than 24 hours before being released and some were hogtied.

“My decision at the time was a decision that I thought was in the best interest of the District of Columbia and of public safety,” said Newsham, who at the time was an assistant chief in charge at the protest site.

“My sense from what I had seen prior to that group entering the park was that potentially, they could leave the park, continue to destroy property and then maybe get into some interactions with the police where folks could get hurt.”

He added, “So that’s why I made the decision. It was subsequently determined that that was not the right decision.”

At word of his appointment, the Partnership for Civil Justice, which represented the Pershing Park protesters, pointed to Newsham’s “constitutional violations” toward protesters on Inauguration Day.

“At the protests at Donald Trump’s inauguration just one month ago, [Newsham] plainly acted in willful violation of the law and engaged in yet another illegal mass dragnet arrest,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, in a statement.

Bowser, in response, pointed to “our fellow Washingtonians who participated in a grand jury and sent down 214 indictments” on rioting charges.

Amid violent incidents that damaged property and injured officers during inaugural protests, Newsham said his department successfully applied the lessons it learned in 2002.

“We had thousands of people who peacefully came to Washington, D.C., to exercise their First Amendment right — their grievance with the government,” he said, “and we actually welcomed that as an agency.”

Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell joined WTOP Radio in March 2018 and is excited to cover stories that matter across D.C., as well as in Maryland and Virginia. 

Jack Pointer

Jack contributes to WTOP.com when he's not working as the afternoon/evening radio writer. In a previous life, he helped edit The Dallas Morning News and Chicago Tribune.

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