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With D.C. police chief’s departure, city must ask what it wants in a law enforcement leader

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, a 31-year veteran of force and its leader since 2017, is leaving after the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration to head the police agency in Prince William County. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham’s upcoming departure ­forces the mayor to pick the right kind of leader for an agency facing both a rise in homicides and calls by liberal lawmakers and activists demanding an overhaul of law enforcement.

Newsham, who said he plans to stay on through the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration, is the latest in a growing group of experienced chiefs across the Washington region and the nation who have resigned or retired as localities reexamine the role of policing after widespread demonstrations for social and racial justice.

The new chief will confront demands to reshape the department to conform to a new political reality that emphasizes a public health approach to reducing violence and diverts some funding from police, even as homicides and shootings escalate and residents living in battered neighborhoods demand more patrols to reduce crime.

Newsham, a 31-year veteran of the D.C. police force, and chief since 2017, is leaving one of the nation’s highest profile and most influential law enforcement posts to head the police agency in Prince William County, Va., a fast-growing outer suburb of Washington with far less crime than the District.

Newsham earns $282,716 annually in the District and will take a salary cut to $215,000 in Prince William. He also could receive a pension, roughly 80 percent of his salary.

As chief, Newsham has had an increasingly tense relationship with D.C. Council members, who sometimes saw him as entrenched in old ways and unwilling to commit to the changes they felt necessary for more just policing and accountability for officers.

Newsham regarded himself as open to reform, noting tweaks to policies and his willingness to fire officers who run afoul of the rules. He mandated body-worn cameras before many other departments and said he supported many changes being proposed.

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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) thanked the chief Tuesday night but declined Wednesday to discuss how she would moved forward in the search for a replacement.

Newsham also did not speak publicly on Wednesday. The previous night he said he looked forward to a new challenge and praised District officers for their work during the pandemic and months of sustained demonstrations. He said that his clashes with the council did not factor into his decision and that those debates ultimately put “the city in a better place.”

Still, it is not clear how much longer he could have remained without stronger backing on the council. Newsham’s contract had expired, and he was working under a clause that allowed the mayor to unilaterally extend his tenure.

When the council passed emergency legislation over the summer that made the police force more accountable and transparent, they also required that the chief be reconfirmed in May. Officials familiar with the situation, who were not authorized to comment publicly, said the mayor and chief felt they could not win that vote, especially with the election in November of two new liberal members.

The period after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has been a tumultuous one for the nation’s police chiefs. They have been buffeted by calls for change, major protests, controversial killings by officers and, in some cities, rising homicide rates.

Chiefs have also had to manage clashing constituencies of city council members, police unions and activists in a quickly shifting landscape. Police leaders from jurisdictions around the District have left or plan to leave, including those in Prince George’s and Fairfax counties, and others from Louisville to Portland have not survived the crosswinds.

They include the police chief in Dallas, who resigned after the department was sharply criticized for its handling of protests for racial justice over the summer. The same month, the chief in Rochester, N.Y., left after video surfaced publicly showing a Black man placed in a spit hood. He later died. And Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best announced her resignation in August after the City Council voted to slash the police budget in response to protests for racial justice. Best said the move put her in a position where she was “destined to fail.”

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Chuck Wexler, who heads the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises law enforcement agencies on best practices and helps departments search for chiefs, said it is not yet clear what kind of police chief will emerge from the debate.

The restructurings, Wexler said, “are works in progress.” He also said that “we cannot forget the basics,” noting rising crime. He credited departments such as New York and D.C. with making changes in the past that are similar to “the way current police departments are having to make changes now.”

Several names for possible successors have been mentioned, including Cmdr. Morgan C. Kane, who heads the 1st District station, and Robert J. Contee III, who has previously been considered a candidate for the post. He is the assistant chief of the Investigative Services Bureau and a native Washingtonian who began his career as a cadet before joining the force in 1989.

Kane declined to comment, and Contee could not be reached. Council members would not commit to a name.

“We’ve been after him for years,” Wexler said of efforts to lure Contee to other police departments. “He’s turned down everyone of them. He’s wedded to D.C. This is his home.”

Wexler said Contee would bring continuity to the department led by Newsham and before him Cathy L. Lanier. All three advanced under the leadership of Charles H. Ramsey, who served as chief from 1998 to 2006 and is credited with launching changes that turned around what had been a disgraced department.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he believes the next chief should be promoted from within the department.

As the council pushed for sweeping change over the summer, Newsham complained that he was not offered input and accused lawmakers of “abandoning” officers.

The chief also has railed against the criminal justice system, saying gun offenders were not treated seriously or harshly enough, and he fought attempts to cut money and the size of his force, believing, along with the mayor, that it made the District less safe.

A report from the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety took issue with Newsham’s “tough on crime” talk, saying it was “actively doing harm to communities of color.”

Newsham also faced chal­lenges from within the agency. Last month, a Black sergeant sued the department, claiming supervisors retaliated against her after she alleged officers were illegally targeting Black men for arrests.

Newsham has repeatedly reminded lawmakers of his past efforts to change the police department and turn it into what he believes is a national model — including guiding the agency though federal oversight after The Washington Post reported in 1998 that officers had shot and killed more people than any other agency, with poor oversight and training. Police officers in the District today shoot few people.

On Wednesday, the committee’s chairman, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), said past accomplishments didn’t help in focusing on what comes next.

“We always have to be moving toward change,” Allen said. “What took place in the past does not address what we have to do today, or what the future will hold.”

Allen said the number of police chiefs leaving their posts across the country “speaks to the magnitude of this moment.” In a statement, he said that “the nation is changing, and law enforcement in the District — and what we expect from a chief of police — must evolve as well.”

David Grosso (I-At Large), whose term expires in January, similarly faulted the chief for insisting the police department was already reforming, which he felt suggested it didn’t need as much scrutiny as other agencies.

“We need wholesale change, so we need someone who is willing to do that change, and what I mean by that is I want someone who doesn’t think they’ve done all the change they need to do when it comes to fixing the police department,” said Grosso, the only lawmaker who voted against Newsham’s appointment and to call for his resignation.

Incoming council member Janeese Lewis George, a Democrat who will represent Ward 4 and a vocal critic of police, said the District lost opportunities to overhaul policing in the aftermath of Floyd’s death in part because of what she saw as Newsham’s resistance.

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“Every call for accountability was seen as an attack, and I think that hurt us as a community,” said George, who replaces Brandon T. Todd, who was largely deferential to police. “We had the opportunity with the climate of this nation and the climate here in this city to have a leader who wanted to collaborate and create understanding in the community. That’s where Newsham didn’t step up to the plate and be the bigger person as a leader.”

Alexander Padro, a neighborhood advisory commission member in Shaw who had an unsuccessful bid for an at-large council seat, said there must be a balance. He supports some changes but not reducing the number of officers or funding.

“Many people have made it very clear, they would like to see more officers on the street,” he said.

Newsham is set to start his new job Feb. 1, taking the helm of a police force in a county undergoing rapid demographic and political change that has transformed it from a rural and conservative enclave into a large and liberal-leaning community. Last year, the county elected a Democrat as commonwealth’s attorney on a platform that was more liberal than the retiring prosecutor. Crime is low, but gang violence, particularly connected to MS-13, has been a persistent problem.

Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega, who is a Republican, wrote in an email that she could not discuss the decision process, or other candidates, but said of Newsham that she was “impressed by his willingness to stand up to the DC City Council’s attacks on his officers and efforts to cut tens of millions from their police budget earlier this year.”

Anita Bonds (D-At Large), a member of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee, said Newsham leaves the city with a mixed legacy: He helped modernize the police force and rebuild its morale but lacked the confidence of many in the community with violent crime rising and protests over policing growing.

“It’s an opportunity for us to look at community policing anew,” said Bonds.

Keith L. Alexander, Michael Brice-Saddler and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.

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