Shawday Cunningham says police officers follow her and her classmates as they leave school, visit a store or stop by a recreation center. “When we go outside, we get harassed,” the 16-year-old said.
Growing up in Southeast Washington, Shawday also knows the dangers of her neighborhood. “Honestly, I’ve lost count,” she said in an interview, struggling to recall how many people she knows who have been shot in the District.
Speaking Thursday night before a D.C. Council hearing on police conduct, Shawday choked back tears as she described the paradox in her world: Gunmen seem to run with impunity, but she doesn’t trust the police to help. “It’s sad. It’s really, really sad,” the Eastern High School sophomore told lawmakers and others who packed the Deanwood Recreation Center in Northeast Washington. “A lot of my friends are dying.”
Council members called the hearing after members of the police department’s Gun Recovery Unit converged on a group of young men outside Nooks barbershop on Sheriff Road last month, and after finding a pellet gun, tried to question and search many people there. A tense standoff ensued, after which the men complained that their rights had been violated during the use of a “jump-out” tactic the police department insists it long ago abandoned — involving officers indiscriminately hopping from unmarked cars and accosting people on the street.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, speaking at the Wilson Building during the first part of a day-long hearing Thursday that continued that evening in Deanwood, described being caught between residents who demand that police clear corners and those who hang out on those corners and feel unfairly targeted.
“We have to address both of those concerns at the same time, and it’s an extremely difficult position that our officers are put in,” Newsham said. He said he had bolstered the police force by 25 percent in Ward 8 after local leaders declared a “crime emergency” because of a rise in homicides.
But Newsham also defended the work of his officers and the 32-member gun unit, stressing the seizure of 900 guns this year, more than half of them east of the Anacostia River. Noting that 39 of this year’s 81 homicides as of June 13 had occurred in Ward 8, Newsham said: “That’s real people really dying. Most of those deaths are from illegal firearms, and we as a police department have a responsibility to, in a safe and respectful way, get those firearms off the streets.”
Members of the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety expressed skepticism over the Sheriff Road encounter, some recalling growing up in the District during the crack cocaine era, when homicides were three times today’s numbers. During the hearing, the committee’s chairman, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), played an expletive-filled video recording of the confrontation outside the Sheriff Road barbershop.
“I know the feeling of being arrested or detained for doing nothing,” said council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who recalled growing up in the District when homicides were at their worst. “And you were powerless to stop it.”
Council member 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.”
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) told Newsham the discussion was about “a fundamental shift in the way you do business on the street. Rather than coming up in an unmarked car and jumping out and frisking everybody, it’s about pulling up a chair and sitting down and understanding who they are what their struggles are. . . . We’re using a sledgehammer to try and solve a problem we no longer need a sledgehammer for.”
Newsham defended targeting Sheriff Road, saying officers had legitimate suspicions of wrongdoing. They noticed a parked Volvo sedan without license plates and windows tinted dark enough to appear illegal. He said the officers watched as men went in and out of the car, a sign of possible illegal activity.
The video shows some of the interactions. One officer assured the men that the police did not care about their marijuana or cups of alcohol. Another officer saw a bulge under a man’s shirt and seized a pellet gun. Other officers fanned out, asking for identification. One officer incorrectly told a man he could search him because a gun was found on someone in their group.
Newsham said that it is lawful for police to ask for identification but that those being asked do not have to comply. Most of the men on Sheriff Road did not. The chief said the search of the man with the pellet gun was legitimate; Newsham said a search of a man seated in a lounge chair raised questions and is part of an internal investigation. Newsham noted that the officers seized PCP and scales used to weigh marijuana — an indication that it was being sold. He said officers returned the marijuana. He sent one of his assistant chiefs to talk to the men about the incident.
Council members were particularly angry that the officer who seized the pellet gun let the man go without arresting him. Others in the group on Sheriff Road claimed that the man was an undercover officer or an informant who was sent there with a weapon to justify the raid. Newsham denied the allegation and said the decision not to arrest was made to de-escalate the tense situation. But the chief said he might now direct gun squad officers to make an arrest every time they seize a weapon.
Grosso told Newsham that the Sheriff Road episode was reminiscent of “young black men being pushed against a wall and patted down for reasons that were never clear to me. . . . Why are we using the same tactics 30 years later?”
Newsham answered: “It’s not the same tactics.”
Assistant Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, who runs the Investigative Services Bureau, said that what residents refer to as “jump-outs” were features of another era and often used to be done randomly and without probable cause. The tactic had been designed, he said, to maximize arrests for more minor offenses. He said police now do what he termed “intelligent policing” — targeting a group after obtaining legitimate suspicion of a crime, such as a tip or an observation, with the aim of seizing guns rather than making arrests for small amounts of drugs or other nuisance crimes.
Anthony Lorenzo Green, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for the Deanwood area, said the response at Sheriff Road is “not the type of policing I want to see tolerated.”
Green noted that tennis courts have replaced outdoor basketball courts in the neighborhood. “There are very few safe places for our brothers and sisters in Deanwood,” he said, adding that the men on Sheriff Road had “stood their ground. They were saying, ‘We’re not going to tolerate this anymore.’ ”