Few people start a new job with critics already calling for their firing.
When former D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham comes to work on day one as Prince William County, Virginia’s chief of police, he said he hopes to eventually win-over those who believe he’s not the right person for the job.
Newsham was hired Nov. 25, 2020 by Prince William County, after 31 years with the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department — he became D.C.’s chief in 2017, and retired from the department on Jan. 1, 2021.
Monday, Feb. 1 will be Newsham’s first day on the job as police chief in Prince William County.
“I’m the stranger,” Newsham told WTOP. “In Washington, D.C., I think I knew everybody. In Prince William County, I know very few folks, so that part will be a challenge — but I’m up for it.”
During the interview process and after being named the incoming chief, Newsham met several times with County Executive Chris Martino, who strikes him as “a person who’s committed to doing the right thing.”
Newsham met with Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler, who was impressed by Newsham: “I think he’s dealt with a lot of tough issues,” Wheeler told WTOP, on the day Newsham’s hiring was revealed.
“Being in policing right now is tough and I think he’s been able to navigate that, and I think he’ll bring some of those strong leadership skills to Prince William County,” Wheeler said.
The second-most-populated county in Virginia, in the years since 2000, Prince William County shifted from being a conservative Republican stronghold to a county led by progressive Democrats.
Newsham said “we have to be everyone’s police department,” and plans to stay out of county politics as much as possible.
“There does seem to be differences of views, east and west,” Newsham said, of the county, which covers an area of 348 square miles.
The eastern portion of the county, including the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, has large nonwhite populations. Most residents in the western, rural portions of the county are white.
“These folks have, I guess you’d call them ‘differences of opinion’. I think what I can add is trying to avoid divisiveness,” Newsham said, referring to the often polarized nature of life in the nation’s capital.
Newsham said he met each of the supervisors from across the county: “They each have their individual ideas on what direction they want to take the county, but one thing I liked meeting with each and every one of them was the fact they seem genuinely interested in, and committed to the county, and doing what’s in the interest of the county — that’s a team of people I think I can work with.”
Despite near-unanimous support from the Board of County Supervisors — Woodbridge Supervisor Margaret Franklin was the one dissenting vote in Newsham’s hiring — a small, vocal number of county residents have been calling for the county to fire Newsham.
Calling themselves Defend Prince William County, the group will hold a march and rally Saturday afternoon, outside the McCoart Building, where the supervisors meet, to voice opposition to Newsham’s hiring.
“Since the Board of Supervisors refuses to reconsider their vote on the Newsham hiring, many people of this county have very little faith that they will establish any meaningful oversight of the police or reporting of police misconduct,” the group said in a news release.
Newsham, who is white, said he is looking forward to meeting critics who believe his policing policies in the nation’s capital aren’t the proper fit for the increasingly diverse county.
“It’s going to be my responsibility to get together with those folks and let them know who Pete Newsham really is, let them know what I’m all about. My sense is if they knew the real Pete Newsham, they would want me to be their chief of police, and hopefully that’ll be the case after I get the chance to meet them.”
Newsham has talked with Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth — the Democrat is in her first term after the retirement of Paul Ebert, who sent more people to Virginia’s death row than any prosecutor in the history of the commonwealth.
In the June 2020 WTOP series: “Justice for all: Amid police reform debate, Northern Virginia prosecutors target system racism,” Ashworth said reducing systemic racism in police departments and prosecutors’ offices will improve lives in Northern Virginia.
“The better the criminal justice system is, the more faith people have that when a crime is committed against them, they don’t have to go out and fix the wrongs themselves — they can rely on the criminal justice system to right the wrong,” Ashworth said.
Newsham said he believes his attitudes on reform are in-line with Ashworth’s.
“We had a great meeting. I think we’re on the same page with regards to ensuring people who are violent need to be held accountable, and I think she truly believes that, in her heart of hearts,” he said.
Coming from D.C., where according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 50% of the residents are Black, Newsham said he is aware nonwhites have historically been underrepresented in Prince William County’s police department.
“A number of folks in the community have raised concern about the department not being diverse enough. I’m a true believer that your police department — diversity-wise — needs to reflect the community that they serve,” Newsham said.
In hiring Newsham, Wheeler said in November 2020: “I was impressed that the D.C. police department — the demographics of the department officers themselves; their patrol officers — mirrored their community, which is something that we need to make advances on.”
Newsham said hiring new officers of color in the current environment, with a focus on racial justice, will be both difficult and important. “Now, because of a lot of the stigma that has attached to policing across the country — Prince William County isn’t any different.”
“There’s young people of color who have absolutely no interest in associating with policing, and I’m going to have to try and change that mindset,” Newsham said, acknowledging that trust, and interest in the police profession is low.
“I’m going to have to let them know that policing is a service profession. This is a profession you can come into, you can be proud of. You can spend 30 years of your life doing it, you can reflect back, and feel like you did something worthwhile.”