D.C. Council members signaled support for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s nomination of Peter Newsham as the city’s next police chief at a hearing Friday, as a wide array of witnesses gave Newsham mixed reviews for his conduct on and off the job over nearly three decades in law enforcement in the District.
The testimony — which lasted all day and continued into Friday night — offered a panorama of the friends and enemies Newsham has made over a long and sometimes scandal-shadowed career.
Although he was praised for ties he has built with D.C. residents and other officers at the Metropolitan Police Department, he also was attacked for high-profile missteps, particularly his aggressive handling of some large demonstrations in the nation’s capital.
Newsham also drew criticism from members of the public over past allegations that he physically abused his ex-wife. Those accusations, made in the course of a contentious divorce and child-custody battle and denied by Newsham, did not result in criminal charges. An internal police department investigation found no misconduct, although Newsham was placed on administrative leave while the matter was investigated.
Most council members who spoke at the hearing seemed convinced that Newsham’s strengths outweighed his shortcomings.
“By his own admission, over the time he’s been on the force, he’s made mistakes,” said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). “And he’s learned from those mistakes.”
No vote on the nomination was scheduled for the hearing.
Newsham has been interim police chief since last fall. If confirmed to permanently fill the position, he will take over a department previously led by one of the District’s most popular public figures: former chief Cathy L. Lanier, who left last year to oversee security for the National Football League.
Newsham, 52, has been an assistant chief for 14 of his 27 years on the force. Before becoming interim chief, he led the criminal investigation division.
Testimony by dozens of witnesses Friday — including police officers, activists and lawyers — offered a portrait of a “cop’s cop,” in the words of a fellow officer. They said he had evolved alongside his department since the early 1990s, when a deeply troubled police force struggled to fight crime in a city then known as the nation’s “murder capital.”
Michael R. Bromwich, an attorney who served as independent monitor of the D.C. police for the U.S. Justice Department between 2002 and 2008, said Newsham had been a key player in carrying out “very important and very difficult reforms” in police handling of internal misconduct and suspects’ civil rights.
“This is a very different and much better department,” Bromwich said. “By virtue of experience, temperament and judgment, Peter Newsham is the right person at the right time to be the chief of this department.”
Lanier appeared before the committee to endorse Newsham as her successor, stating that “he is loyal, he is dedicated, he is hard-working, and he’s a very, very nice person.”
She added, “You could not ask for a better man to take this job.”
Critics countered that Newsham’s handling of two prominent protests 15 years apart — a 2002 demonstration against the World Bank in Pershing Park and protests against the Trump administration on Jan. 20 — showed he had not changed as much as supporters claimed.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, said the council should delay voting on Newsham’s appointment until the release of more information on the arrests of of more than 200 people on Inauguration Day. The group is suing to get records of Newsham’s handling of the protesters.
Verheyden-Hilliard said the incident had troubling echoes of Pershing Park, where Newsham oversaw the arrests of nearly 400 demonstrators. Those arrests, carried out under a “trap and detain” strategy in which some people were tied wrist-to-ankle and held for up to 24 hours, have led to more than $13 million in legal settlements, $11 million of it paid by the District.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said there were “many, many, many mistakes” made by the police at Pershing Park and “a lot of blame to go around.” But, she said that the department had “materially changed its tactics” since then and that she supported Newsham.
Newsham acknowledged errors at Pershing Park as police followed best practices at the time by encircling demonstrators, tactics that are long outdated.
“I made a mistake,” Newsham said.
Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) asked about an off-duty incident from Newsham’s days as a rank-and-file officer when he was allegedly found in possession of his service weapon while appearing intoxicated.
“When I was in my 20s I went out, probably had too much to drink. Somebody saw my firearm,” Newsham said. “A supervisor was called to intervene,” Newsham testified. He said the department investigated but he was not disciplined.
Newsham’s personal life also came under scrutiny Friday, as some members of the public who spoke at the hearing argued that his ex-wife’s allegations that he had abused her disqualified him.
Stephanie Dahle Adams, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Ward 2, argued the allegations meant Newsham was unsuited to head the police force.
In 2002, Angeline Newsham sought a protective order asserting that Peter Newsham, in an argument about their children, pushed her down, cutting her elbow and bruising her tailbone. Later that year, she said in court, “Peter punched me when I was fighting with him about seeing my kids.” She said she suffered a broken foot, black eye and broken tooth.
During a court hearing at the time, Peter Newsham denied striking his wife. “I would not harm Angie ever,” he said, according to a recording of the hearing.
“More than a decade ago, Chief Newsham was involved in a divorce and protracted custody dispute,” D.C. police said in a statement after Fox 5 (WTTG) reported the allegations last year. “It was one of the most difficult experiences he has had to go through in his life. . . . During the custody dispute, unfounded allegations were lodged against him.”
During Newsham’s testimony Friday, six protesters tied their wrists together, sat down and chanted that Newsham had “to go.” They were detained for less than an hour and released.
Newsham ended by saying he was committed to being an “empathetic” chief who would lead an agency committed to fair, unbiased policing.
He said his officers would enforce the law impartially and that he took responsibility for seeing to it that every officer “treats you with the respect you deserve.”