June 11, 2020


Candid Talk from Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Chief Pete Newsham

For today’s Critical Issues Report, Chuck Wexler interviewed Pete Newsham, Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, about use-of-force reforms, recent demonstrations, COVID-19, and talk across the country about “defunding” policing: 

The Potential Impact of Defunding the Police on Police Reforms

Chuck Wexler: What do you think about the debate about “defunding” police?

Chief Newsham:  It concerns me a lot to think about police budgets being drastically cut. I think the experience here in MPD is a good example. In the late ‘90s, the Washington Post did a series of articles about the Metropolitan Police Department regarding excessive force. They pointed out that the MPD had shoddy force investigations, and we were using excessive force on a regular basis, more than any other police agency in the country. Frankly, it was an embarrassing time for me as a police officer in Washington, DC.

The city was also having financial problems.  Chief Ramsey came to town, and the Financial Control Board took over the city. Ramsey asked the U.S. Department of Justice to come in and take a look at the MPD. DOJ did a two-year investigation, and we entered into an agreement  to change everything we did regarding use of force, including training and investigations. We built a “tactical village” training facility, so that we could give our officers scenario-based training. It took a lot of hard work, and it took a long time to really turn our agency around.

Around 2008, we came into substantial compliance with the memorandum of agreement. In 2015, the DC auditor asked the independent monitor, who had been monitoring our progress, to come back and take a look at the MPD again, to see if we had slipped back on any of the reforms we had implemented through the memorandum of agreement. One of the independent monitor’s 2015 conclusions was that the Metropolitan Police Department was committed to reform and to fair, unbiased, and Constitutional policing.

So I went from a period in my career when I was embarrassed for our agency to a place where I think we’re one of the best agencies in the country when it comes to use of force.

When we were in that really bad place as an agency, I think a lot of that had to do with inappropriate funding for the agency.

You use funding for tools that increase accountability, like body-worn cameras. You use it for hiring and retention of really good employees and officers who are fair-minded, service-based people. You use the funding for state-of-the-art training, including training for leaders, cultural competency training, implicit bias training, and de-escalation training.

If you don’t have those resources as a police agency, I think you’re more likely to be involved in one of these incidents where somebody unnecessarily loses their life.

Wexler: It wasn’t easy to make those changes, was it?

Chief Newsham:  There was a culture that had developed, where things had been done a certain way for a very long time. There were people who believed that was the right way to do things. It really required people to do a lot of self-examination, and change over that period of time was very difficult.

But now those changes have all been embraced, and, after going through something like that, there’s a mindset that we always need to keep our ears open for additional changes that make us better.

For example, in the past year, we did a complete overhaul of our policy regarding the treatment of juveniles in our city, including the handcuffing of juveniles. Those are the types of changes that we might not have made prior to going through that transition, because now our police leaders are more open-minded to criticism and making changes when necessary.

Wexler:  Are your officer-involved shootings down compared to 20 years ago?

Chief Newsham:   They’ve been reduced dramatically. Fatal police shootings in Washington, DC are rare, and the instances where we have had fatal police shootings have been circumstances where police officers have been defending their own lives or other people’s lives.

Wexler:  Sometimes reforms are undone by a new chief. Why didn’t that happen in MPD?

Chief Newsham:  Ramsey was instrumental in making a lot of the changes, and I think Cathy Lanier, who succeeded Ramsey in 2007, had lived through what I lived through in this agency. So she appreciated the improvements that we made, and she was 100% committed to sustaining that and continuing to improve. Lanier was able to connect with our community in a way that I’ve never seen before, and I think that was instrumental to us in building trust. So when we do have a fatal police shooting, I believe our community, by and large, thinks that our police officers were trying to do the right thing at the time.

Recent Demonstrations

Wexler:  What were the demonstrations like this past week?

Chief Newsham:  Whenever you have large groups of people, you need to have a mindset of facilitating the activity. In the COVID environment, there were some challenges with the recent demonstrations that we hadn’t had in the past. It was difficult to judge the crowd sizes.  Usually you can look at a demonstrations permit and get some sense of how many people are going to come, but no permits were being issued because of COVID-19.  Often you can predict the size of a demonstration based on the number of charter buses coming in, but a lot of the bus service around the country has been restricted, so we were unable to judge numbers from that.  For these recent demonstrations, a lot of the information about numbers and exactly what people were going to do when they got here was based on open-source information.

Our philosophy at MPD on First Amendment assemblies is very simple. We welcome people to come to Washington, DC from anywhere in the country or the world to exercise their First Amendment rights, but we won’t tolerate anybody destroying property or hurting people while they’re here. I think if that’s your overall philosophy, you can be successful.

Wexler:  Was this past week more violent than past demonstrations you’ve seen?

Chief Newsham:  You have to separate the violence from the peaceful demonstrations. The violence is perpetrated by a very small group of people who have the deliberate intent to destroy things and throw rocks, bricks, and incendiary devices at human beings. That behavior can’t be tolerated.

Martin Luther King was a very successful change agent in our country’s history, and his philosophy was to change things peacefully. And that’s what we saw from Tuesday forward. We saw tens of thousands of people coming to Washington, DC to peacefully make change. I think that lumping the agitators in with that group is unfair to the peaceful people who came.

We in law enforcement cannot tolerate anybody coming to our cities and destroying property. After the destruction, I saw some small business owners who were heartbroken. Their lives, their businesses, and their very small profit margins have been affected in a very, very personal way. That was very sad to see. We’ve arrested a number of people involved in that behavior, and hopefully people won’t forget what they did when we bring them to trial, and hopefully they’ll be held responsible. In no way, shape, or form should we accept that behavior as something we can tolerate.

We had police injuries. Thankfully, only one of those injuries was significant. We had a police officer who had to have surgery on a compound fracture in his leg caused by a brick thrown at him.  The use of munitions by law enforcement officers to protect themselves from people who are throwing bottles, bricks, and incendiary devices at them is 100% something that we in law enforcement need to support. We can’t have our officers being injured by those folks.

At the same time, we cannot have the use of munitions on peaceful demonstrators under any circumstances. There’s no circumstance that justifies the use of munitions on peaceful protesters.

COVID-19 and the Strain on Officers

Wexler:  We’ve had three months of COVID, now we’ve had mass demonstrations, and everybody is questioning the police. Does this time compare to any other experiences you’ve had in your professional life?

Chief Newsham:  No, this is unprecedented. One thing I’m hearing from the men and women of the Metropolitan Police Department is that they’re deflated. They feel like they had been policing in a proper, appropriate, and professional way, and they feel like they’re being blamed for something that happened 1,000 miles away from here.

I think we have to encourage our folks to keep doing what they’re doing, recognize them for the positive things they do, and hopefully reinspire them to this work.

Wexler:  Thanks, Pete.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.

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