The marathon meeting was called primarily so District residents could discuss a replacement for Cathy L. Lanier, who recently retired after heading their city’s police department for nearly a decade. It quickly evolved into a discussion on what type of policing should be practiced in the nation’s capital.
For more than seven hours Thursday night into Friday morning, members of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee heard from more than 50 people — advocates for reform, a parent of a murder victim, experts in crime statistics, defense lawyers, a police union official and residents concerned about safety in their neighborhoods.
District officials say that they have received applicants for the chief’s position but have not begun interviewing. An active process won’t begin until after a new schools chancellor is selected.
It was clear there is no consensus over exactly what people want to see in a new chief. Some at the meeting talked of unfairly being overly policed and harassed. Others complained the District is under-policed amid a crime epidemic. Many said police are taxed with too many jobs — among them dealing with the mentally ill and drug addicted. People bandied about a myriad of definitions for “community policing,” and debated whether it is practiced in the District.
“We have residents who feel they don’t see the visibility,” said Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the public safety committee. “They don’t want a police state. They just want to see routine patrol. They want to feel community policing exists in their neighborhood.”
Squarely in the middle was Peter Newsham, a 27-year department veteran who the mayor chose as interim chief in mid-September, and who has made no secret that he wants the top job. Testifying in the sixth hour of Thursday’s hearing, Newsham quickly sought middle ground over two extreme perceptions revealed in the testimony — the District either has too many police acting inappropriately or not enough police who are overwhelmed.
“I haven’t gone into a community yet who said they were happy with violent crimes or shootings,” Newsham said. “Every single time we go to a homicide scene, a little piece of our heart gets chipped away.”
But Newsham agreed that different neighborhoods want so-called nuisance crimes — petty drug use, loud noise, drinking in public, loitering — handled differently, or not even by police at all. “We have to adjust our policing accordingly,” he said. Newsham said he tells young officers, “The last resort is to place somebody under arrest.”
The interim chief noted that two years ago the department, amid much criticism from some residents and many rank-and-file officers, disbanded the plainclothes vice units — decried as “jump-out” squads by residents — and replaced them with officers who target drug dealers rather than petty addicts. “We actually modified our tactics,” Newsham said. “We didn’t want to be involved in something that was alienating us from the community we serve.”
Police statistics show that property and violent crime have dropped about 9 percent over the past two years. There has been a drop in the number of killings compared with last year, when there was a spike in homicides. But the 116 killings that occurred as of Friday afternoon represent an increase over the same period in 2014.
Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, warned lawmakers that many cities, Washington included, are “one bad shooting from the kinds of disturbances we saw in Baltimore” and elsewhere. He said that even with an end to jump-outs and new laws that legalize once criminal behavior, racial disparities remain in arrests.
D.C. authorities are continuing to investigate a controversial fatal shooting by an officer of a motorcyclist in September. Authorities said the biker intentionally struck a police cruiser door as the officer was getting out. The officer did not have his body-worn camera turned on, fueling outrage by angry family members and friends and prompting claims of a coverup.
Patrice Sulton, who heads the legislative committee for the D.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said problem officers are too often protected despite issues such as making arrests based on false statements. She urged selecting a police chief “who understands the value of procedural justice” and said, “When the system is legitimate, people are more likely to respond to the authority of police.”
April Goggins, an organizer with Black Lives Matter, told council members she would not call 911 if she became victimized by crime. She said she’d call a friend or a family, part of a community she “had built relationships with.” She said, “I don’t feel safe as long as I know an officer can do anything to me and get away with it.”
Debbie Smith Steiner, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Northeast Washington’s Edgewood neighborhood, said it appears the mayor has “already made up her mind to accept Newsham” while questioning his reach to the entire city. She complained that police officers and supervisors get so quickly moved from place to place “we don’t even get to know their names. . . . We don’t have Officer Friendly anymore. We have officer-in-a-car-I’m-gonna-keep-moving.”
But Paul Trantham, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Southeast, said he was “appalled and offended that so many people have scrutinized our police force who come out here to protect our lives.” He questioned crime statistics, saying it seems that crime is up in the historically dangerous Wards 7 and 8, though police said it is down overall in both areas. Homicides are up in Ward 7 this year, down in Ward 8.
“That data is not accurate to the crime we are witnessing day after day,” Trantham said, calling not only for raises for officers and a larger force but for stricter tactics such as jump-outs to return.
“I believe some of our leaders are in denial,” he said. “Pop. Pop. Pop. That is what we are hearing so often. . . . We know our police need help. For the life of me, I don’t understand why our mayor and our council doesn’t provide them the tools they need to combat the problem.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the first name of Patrice Sulton, who heads the legislative committee for the D.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.