DC police chief calls council’s defunding effort a ‘knee-jerk reaction’

Police Chief Peter Newsham at a press conference. At left is D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

D.C.’s police chief, speaking exclusively to WTOP, said the idea of reducing the size of the force “doesn’t seem to make common sense,” defended a recent statement that officers have been “completely abandoned” by the D.C. Council, and asked for public support on the matter.

On Thursday, the council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee will meet and mark up Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget for safety for the next fiscal year.

Police Chief Peter Newsham expressed his fears on Wednesday that his department’s budget, already looking at a $7 million cut due to the city’s expenses and lost revenue from the coronavirus pandemic, will suffer more reductions.

“What doesn’t seem to make common sense to me is to reduce the size of the police department. That, in effect, is what the chairman of the Judiciary Committee is recommending that we do. So, I disagree with that stance … I think that people who are equally concerned should reach out and express their views to the council,” Newsham said.

The chief has butted heads in recent hearings with committee Chair Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who can modify Bowser’s proposed public safety budget and has suggested a downsizing of the department in favor of reallocating resources to alternative community safety programs.

The mayor’s budget already has $714,000 slated for violence interruption and another $610,000 allocated for the city’s employment pathways program.

“I think we need to think carefully and thoughtfully before we do a politically correct, knee-jerk reaction to what’s going on in other parts of the country and all of a sudden downsize the size of our police department. That’s how I feel,” Newsham said.

Allen responded in a statement, which said, in part:

We will move forward together with a responsive and responsible budget and continue to search for ways to end racism and racial inequity. It would be nice to have the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department be a voice in that conversation representing the sworn officers he leads, but it isn’t necessary.

The mayor has publicly asked the D.C. Council not to rush to make emergency legislation permanent, and to allow time to hear from experts and stakeholders about the potential for unforeseen consequences in instituting police reforms.

Union chief: ‘We’re the pariahs’

“The union and other people who support the police are sort of banging on their door saying, ‘Wait, don’t do this,’ and they are claiming it’s an emergency and it has to be done right away. But these are sweeping changes that have ripple effects all over law enforcement in the city … And nobody wants to listen to us because we’re the pariahs in this situation,” said Gregory Pemberton, the chair of the D.C. police union.

The police department has an underlying problem in hiring and retaining officers: The department usually loses 100 to 200 officers a year to new jobs or retirements. The D.C. police budget, with $7 million lost to coronavirus response, means that the department cannot hire for the first six months of its new budget cycle, Newsham said.

Last week, the police union conducted a survey that found 71% of the 600 officers polled would leave the department if the temporary legislation became permanent.

“You’re taking a poll in the heat of the moment when you do have a lot of frustration,” Newsham said. “Police are feeling a little bit underappreciated, not only here but across the country. So, it doesn’t surprise me to see that human beings who have committed their lives to public safety react with that type of response.”

“Now, whether or not that 71% is inflated because officers are angry, or officers are upset with the city and that was their way of retaliating, I’m sure that number is built into there,” Pemberton said. “But let’s just say it’s not 71%; let’s say it’s 10% [of the nearly 4,000-member force]. That’s 400 officers that are leaving the department in short order. That number would critically hamper our ability to do our job.”

Some reforms in place

The killing of Black people by police officers has city councils nationwide considering reforms to their police departments. Newsham said many of them are already policy in D.C.

The District lacks only one of the 8 Can’t Wait campaign’s use-of-force policy restrictions it claims reduces killings by police and saves lives.

D.C. only has yet to ban officers from shooting at moving vehicles. The District already bans chokeholds, requires de-escalation, requires officers to warn before shooting, requires they exhaust alternatives before shooting and places a duty to intervene. It has a use-of-force continuum and comprehensive reporting.

Many of those reforms became law with 2016’s Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Amendment Act, endorsed by Black Lives Matter DC, Stop Police Terror Project DC and the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia.

“We’ve been dealing with reforms in the city for 20 years,” Pemberton said. “We’re light years ahead of a lot of these other agencies that we’re now getting lumped in with, which is a very frustrating place to be in.”

“It’s true MPD has made reforms over the last 20 years that have helped — many of those reforms came from laws passed by this Council or federal mandates. The hard work to reform is never complete as we strive for racial justice,” Allen said in a statement.

Last week, some 500 people signed up to testify in front of Allen’s committee, with most supporting the idea of reducing the police force, in line with the Defund the Police movement.

“That’s a large number, but it’s not as large as 750,000, the current population of the District,” Pemberton said. “I think if we actually had the ability to go ask each of them, I think you’d see overwhelming numbers of people who support the police, especially the police they deal with in their neighborhoods.”

‘Completely abandoned’

A week ago, a video of Newsham telling officers that the D.C. Council “completely abandoned them” became public. He told WTOP he stands behind that.

“That was a statement that I made to my police officers. I knew how they were feeling. I felt the pulse. I heard what they were saying. And one of the things you can’t tell us is how we feel. So, if someone is hurt or someone’s feelings are hurt because of the way we feel, I apologize for that. But we’re going to continue to do our J-O-B because that’s what we always do,” Newsham said.

Though Pemberton said the union was pleased to see the chief take such an aggressive stance in defending his department, he recognized that Newsham fell under “attack” by council members for his words. It’s part of the reason why, Pemberton said, he conducted the recent poll, which also found that 98% of those officers agreed with the chief’s statement.

“I agree the chief can’t tell his officers how to feel, just as much as I can’t tell D.C. residents how to feel about policing,” Allen said in part in his statement responding to the interview with Newsham.

“But his comments weren’t about hurt feelings or offense; they were about whether one can meet a moment that leadership demands. Leadership is about setting an example and collaborating to make progress. The process of continuing to align our police department and our values won’t happen in just one budget or with one law,” Allen said.

Newsham wants to keep his roughly 3,800 officers on the force, which is in line with what Bowser has budgeted.

In the past two years, the city has tripled the size of its police cadet class, and Bowser had set a goal to increase the ranks of the D.C. police to 4,000 by 2021, with a focus on officers patrolling on foot and on bikes.

Any more committee cuts to the budget, Newsham said, and he won’t be able to maintain the size of the force he needs.

“I can say as the chief of police, I am not comfortable right now with all the responsibilities we have here in Washington, D.C.,” Newsham said.

Addressing the 600,000 calls for help, daily demonstrations, violent crime and a growing population takes a police force that is close to 4,000 officers strong, according to Newsham.

He told the council’s Judiciary Committee last week the city has a violence problem.

Homicides are currently running 10% higher than last year at this time, and violence with a gun is up by 26%, according to police data. That said, violent crime as a whole, taking into account the reported instances of sex abuse, assaults and robberies, remains more than 10% below last year’s totals.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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