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Prince William police chief: Use of force has ‘disproportionate impact’ on Black residents

A Prince William County Police car.
A Prince William County Police car. (Prince William County Police)

Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham said Monday that Black residents are disproportionately affected by police use of force, although such incidents are “very rare.”

Newsham, a former D.C. police chief, left to head the Prince William force last year. His comments came after the release of the county’s annual report on Friday, which showed a 32 percent increase in the number of times officers used “physical or weaponless” force in 2020 compared with 2019. The department counted 825 of these uses of force in 2020 compared with 625 in 2019.

The report said that in 8,355 criminal arrests or detentions in 2020, force was used in 369 — up from 316 in 2019. More than 95 percent of arrests involved no use of force, according to the report, and “physical/weaponless tactics were most often used” when force was deployed.

However, the report said, about 49 percent of those arrested with force were Black, while 24 percent were White and 23 percent were Hispanic. Prince William County is 22 percent Black, according to census data, and about 41 percent of those arrested in total were Black.

In an interview Monday, Newsham said use-of-force data, released by the county for the first time, showed “a disproportionate impact on African Americans.” He added that it is “very rare where police have to use force.”

“We would love a world where we don't have to use force at all,” he said. “We’re very close to that in Prince William County.”

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham leaving for job in Virginia

Newsham said he was seeking federal funding for a study to determine the “root cause” of the disparity.

“We don’t want to have a disproportionate impact on any race in our community,” he said. “Emotionally, I think it erodes at the trust we have with our African American community. . . . There is a gut reaction to this type of information that is negative.”

Newsham said that use of force was related to the number of assaults on officers — which, according the report, held steady from 2019 to 2020 at about 150.

“Even though there are fewer arrests, there are just as many assaults on police officers,” Newsham said. “When you have assaults on police officers, there’s a high probability there will be use of force in response.”

The report also said the police shooting of 79-year-old Kurtis Kay Frevert in December, who pointed a gun at officers and died after he was fired on by five officers, was “within policy.” The commonwealth’s attorney for Prince William County found the officers were justified in the fatal shooting.

Other metrics in the annual report offered a mixed view of crime in the county. The crime rate in Prince William remained about the same, according to the report, rising slightly to 12 crimes per 1,000 residents from 11.9 last year. The number of homicides fell in 2020, from 14 in 2019 to eight last year, the report said.

Tracking D.C.-area homicides

However, the county fared less well in other areas. The report said deaths from opioid overdoses increased about 55 percent, from 65 in 2019 to 101 last year.

Sara Wheeler, Prince William County’s division manager for youth, adult and family services, said in an interview that the increase in overdose deaths was partly due to the isolation many people experienced during the coronavirus pandemic as well as the early release from prison of some people struggling with addiction.

“Addictions really thrive when they are isolated and away from supports,” she said. “People weren’t seen by those that those that love and care about them to get treatment.”

The number of aggravated assaults also increased to 716 from 476 in 2019, according to the report, an increase of about 50 percent. The use of firearms in these incidents also increased 115 percent, the report said.

“Although no definitive cause can be identified for the overall increase, the use of firearms, dangerous weapons, and vehicles to assault intensified in 2020,” the report said.

The annual report was the county’s first released under Newsham’s leadership. He retired from his job as D.C. police chief last year to go to Prince William, taking a pay cut from $282,716 annually to $215,000.

“I love my new job,” Newsham said. “I will always look fondly on the District.”