More than a year after leaving D.C. to become police chief in Prince William County, Virginia, Peter Newsham is reflecting on changes he’s made, including a new focus on diversity.
Newsham left his job as D.C. police chief in January of this year to become head of police in the most diverse county in Virginia — and the 10th most diverse in the United States.
Newsham said he arrived to find the department did not reflect the demographics of the 500,000 residents it serves.
“The first class that I brought in this past July, and actually who’s graduating on Friday, is a very diverse group,” Newsham told WTOP. “And that’s the way we’re going to continue, until we have a police department that reflects the diversity of our county.”
Of 41 graduates from police training, the majority are not white, according to data provided by the Prince William County Police Department. While Newsham acknowledged recruiting has been a challenge, he said he is committed to building a department inclusive of differing perspectives.
“Part of that challenge is to ensure that when these officers do join the agency, that they feel accepted and they feel wanted,” Newsham said. “And I can tell you, 100% they will be. And anyone who doesn’t respect our diversity will no longer be a member of this agency.”
One big change was not as well received, however. Newsham streamlined parts of the department, including a reorganization of units like the SWAT team, which was placed on patrol.
“Whenever you do something like that, it disrupts folks’ lives, and some folks can be unhappy about it,” he said. “Some of the folks that went from specialized units back to patrol, initially, they were angry. But they’ve been awesome. They’ve gone right out there. They picked up the ball, and they’re working every single day on behalf of our residents. So I want to thank them for that.”
The attrition rate of officers in the Prince William County Police Department rose by 2% since last year, according to county data. At present, the rate of exit is on par with departments across the region, such as D.C. and Prince George’s County, Maryland, which have both said they need more officers to keep people safe.
While Prince William County can stay competitive as far as officer salaries go, Newsham said that for most recruits, it’s not all about the money.
“If we need to, you know, get some additional benefits out there, we’ll do that. But you also got to look at the agency you’re joining,” Newsham said. “And I can say this from my experience in the District and after coming here: This is a really solid, professional, admired police department.”
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