During a community meeting on missing children in the District, acting D.C. police chief Peter Newsham tried to address concerns among some residents that children were being abducted by child sex traffickers.
“A lot of people think [sex trafficking] is the only circumstance where someone snatches a child off the street, and that can occur,” Newsham said. “But what’s more likely to occur is it could be a family situation . . .”
Before he could finish, a woman in the audience shouted, “What about your police officers that were involved in human trafficking? Let’s talk about that.”
In December 2013, a veteran D.C. police officer was arrested and eventually sent to prison for prostituting teenage girls in Southeast Washington. Another D.C. police officer was also arrested that month for taking photographs of a 15-year-old girl in various stages of undress. He committed suicide before going to trial.
Newsham and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser were at the meeting, held last week in Southeast Washington, to explain a new policy on handling missing persons’ cases. Alerts would go out faster and photographs of the missing people would be posted on social media.
The change in police procedure occurred without public notice in December. By March, 10 girls, most of them African American, had been reported missing — four within 24 hours.
“What we are seeing is an increase in the amount of attention and awareness that we are putting on children that have been separated from families,” Bowser said. “In fact, we think (the D.C. police department) is leading in best practices that other departments should follow.”
But the disappearance of black women and girls has long gone underreported. And the lingering resentment and mistrust caused by two D.C. police officers who had exploited teenage girls made their pitch a hard sell.
For the past three years, only one photograph of a missing child had been posted on the D.C. police missing juvenile website — Relisha Rudd, who was 8 years old when she disappeared from a D.C. homeless shelter in 2014.
When the new policy went into effect and the website recently updated, residents saw for the first time photographs of more than a dozen juveniles that had been reported missing since the beginning of 2017. As of March 26, the police website listed 13 missing children.
According to D.C. police, 2,433 juveniles had been reported missing in 2015 and another 2,242 were reported missing in 2016.
Danni Starr, a radio personality who co-moderated the meeting, noted that the apparent decrease from one year to the next was beside the point. “I can understand why police and the media would say, ‘Hey, there were more missing children back then.’ But we didn’t know back then; we had no idea and we are not finding comfort in there not being an increase.”
Many of the girls reported missing are running away from troubled homes, police and groups who work with teens say. That is of little consolation to a community that has seen what can happen to already vulnerable girls trying to find a safe place.
Phylicia Henry, who counsels sex trafficking victims at Courtney’s House in the District, said at the meeting that five or six girls a week show up seeking help.
“So we do know that it [sex trafficking] is a huge issue,” she said. “And furthermore one of the best solutions is that we have to go after the men because the reality is there are men who want to buy sex from children.”
Bowser acknowledged that city officials needed to know more about sex trafficking. “We want to know the real size of that as well,” she said.
The woman who had interrupted Newsham asked if he was trying to find other officers who may have been involved in abusing children. He said that if there were other officers out there who had committed such crimes “we want to know about it.”
Asked whether the police department did background checks to weed out pedophiles, Newsham replied, “In circumstances where police officers were involved in manipulating young girls . . . I can tell you that’s not something we are going to tolerate on the police department.”
The answers drew a cacophony of shouts and groans.
Newsham responded, “You are not going to scare me out of the room. I’m committed to this city and that’s never going to change.”
There were more groans and sighs; more residents appearing more dumbfounded than reassured.
Statistics may show that the number of juveniles identified as missing has declined since 2015. There were still more than 4,600 juveniles reported missing during the past 24 months. It shouldn’t have taken so many for the city to become alarmed.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.