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D.C. police chief says critical council hearing ‘emboldened’ drug dealers

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham addresses the D.C. Council in a July 2018 hearing during which lawmakers denounced policing tactics. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham took an unusually sharp swipe at a council member on Friday, saying criticism of police aired at a public hearing over the summer “emboldened” criminals on one troubled street.

The chief made the comments to The Washington Post a day after a 17-year-old was wounded in the back when 40 or more bullets were sprayed in front of Nooks barbershop on Sheriff Road in Northeast Washington in the middle of the afternoon.

That block of Sheriff Road is a familiar trouble spot for police, who describe it as an open-air drug market.

It is also a place that has come to symbolize what activists assert are illegal and aggressive searches by officers. Police enforcement on that block dominated a council hearing in July called for by Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), during which lawmakers and many residents denounced police tactics on that street and throughout the city.

Newsham said he believes a group dealing drugs on Sheriff Road “has become emboldened by the hearing and at the suggestion that the police had acted inappropriately there.”

Allen, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, fired back and said the suggestion that the public discussion hamstrung police on that block or elsewhere was “ridiculous.” He said holding officers accountable and confronting crime “are not mutually exclusive.”

The comments thrust the District’s police chief into the center of a political debate over policing strategies and indicate that he may be taking a more aggressive stance against critics amid a homicide count that spiked 40 percent last year.

Tensions rise amid police enforcement on Sheriff Road

Newsham is also facing allegations from the union representing rank-and-file officers that proactive policing has been curtailed to placate lawmakers at the Wilson Building. It could set up a contentious year over how best to police a growing and wealthy city increasingly concerned about the number of killings.

Allen said Thursday’s shooting on Sheriff Road shows that the city must implement programs to interrupt violence before it occurs by reaching out to those at risk of becoming offenders or victims, and helping them find alternate lifestyles. “It can’t be the police alone,” Allen said. He added that programs and policing “have to go together.”

But Allen said he would not stop oversight of police conduct, and he warned “that if the chief is interested in politics, I think he’s in the wrong job. I’d rather focus on how we keep neighborhoods safe.” As to Sheriff Road, the council member said, “I think we should stay focused on the person who pulled the trigger.”

Police have not made an arrest in the Thursday shooting, and it was not clear if the victim was targeted. A friend drove the wounded teen to the Deanwood Recreation Center.

Lawmakers, residents criticize D.C. police for actions on Sheriff Road

In June, tensions on Sheriff Road rose when members of the Gun Recovery Unit swept in after surveilling a parked vehicle with expired license plates and dark tinted windows. Police said various people from a group gathered in front of Nooks barbershop, part of a small strip of storefronts that includes a day-care center for children, had walked to the vehicle and opened the doors.

Suspecting drug activity, the plainclothes officers, who also wore tactical-style gear, waded into a group in an episode captured on video and used to demonstrate what some in the crowd said was out-of-control policing.

Officers searched one man after seeing a bulge in his shirt and found a pellet gun. Another man was searched as he sat in a chair. One officer wrongly told the group that everyone could be searched because one person in the group had a weapon, which helped fuel a rumor that the person with the fake gun was a police informant there to provide a pretext to search others. Newsham has denied that the man worked for police.

The confrontation ended with loud arguments and tense moments but without arrests. “I didn’t commit no crime,” one man yelled at an officer. “I ain’t consenting to no search.”

Homicides spike as union says officers paralyzed to take action

Newsham said the gun-squad officers — who by July had pulled 900 illegal weapons off the streets — knew that the steady flow of traffic to the seemingly abandoned vehicle indicated a possible location for a drug stash, and that they had sufficient legal suspicion to investigate. He said they found liquid PCP and scales indicating drug sales.

After the teen was shot Thursday, Newsham said that “that is the type of violence we see associated with these kinds of places.” In an earlier interview about the controversy, Newsham did not directly call out Allen, instead saying complaints heard at the hearing had “a chilling effect on our officers.”

Allen held the hearings in July, one during the day and the other at the Deanwood Recreation Center that same night. He played the expletive-filled video of the encounter on Sheriff Road. Only a few people testified in favor of police. Several council members were highly critical.

“I know the feeling of being arrested or detained for doing nothing,” said Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large). Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said he feared police were “going backward in terms of community policing having a real, positive impact on our city.” And David Grosso (I-At Large) suggested that instead of a raid, officers should sit down with the young people to get an “understanding of who they are and what their struggles are.”

Stephen Bigelow Jr., chairman of the police union, criticized the council members’ comments during a December interview about the city’s rising homicide count. He said officers on the street feel “paralyzed” by the statements and what he said was the department’s acquiescence.

“There’s a day-care center there,” he said, “and people were more interested in what the gun unit did than the fact there was a dangerous drug 10 feet away from little children.”

Activists have long complained about officers stopping and frisking people with what they argue is less-than-sufficient probable cause. A recent court case unrelated to Sheriff Road shows the complexities involved in a simple interaction where the legality of the search came down to whether officers asked or demanded a man lift his shirt to show whether he was armed.

The members of the gun unit had pulled alongside the man as he walked in Southeast Washington and pointed a flashlight at him. He ran during the encounter, and police later found the suspect, a felon, with a weapon. U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ultimately threw out the seizure, ruling that the officers couldn’t recall their precise words to the suspect and had failed to turn their body-worn cameras on early enough to record the contested exchange.

Sullivan wrote the officers were “ferreting out illegal firearms” using what is dubbed a “rolling roadblock” in which they “randomly trawl high crime neighborhoods asking occupants who fit a certain statistical profile — mostly males in their late teens to early forties — if they possess contraband despite lacking any semblance of particularized suspicion.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a weapon police found on a man on Sheriff Road as a fake gun. It was a pellet gun.

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