Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham said he wants to create a department ready to embrace coming reforms.
Newsham and top department officials spoke with Supervisor Andrea Bailey, D-Potomac, during a virtual town hall on Tuesday.
Newsham, who has more than 31 years of law enforcement experience and will be paid $215,000 a year, spoke briefly during the Feb. 2 Board of Supervisors meeting, but Tuesday was his longest public offering since taking office on Feb. 1.
“We’re not deaf and we’re not blind to the calls for reform,” he said. “I think in the coming years we’re going to see some pretty dramatic reforms in policing."
Newsham was chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., from 2017 to Jan. 1, overseeing a department of 4,500 employees. He was selected for the Prince William job from a pool of 50 applicants and will oversee about 700 sworn officers.
The controversy surrounding Newsham harkens to his time in D.C. and the civil unrest that occurred in summer 2020 following a string of high-profile killings of Black people at the hands of police. Newsham has said the criticism he received is par for the course of any high-profile police chief.
Many of Bailey’s questions, which were largely provided by constituents, focused on equity within the department and its interactions with the community.
According to MPD data, Black officers made up a plurality of the department’s roughly 4,000 sworn officers. In Prince William County, on the other hand, Black residents make up about 22% of the county’s population but just 10% of the county’s police officers are Black. About 25% of the county’s residents are Hispanic, but just 11% of its cops are.
To boost diversity, Newsham said he plans to reach out to community leaders who can help point young people of color into policing. He said young people can help lead change within the department.
Regarding civilian police oversight, which has been proposed for the county, Newsham said officers should not oppose “fair and objective” oversight. A civilian review board would be able to examine complaints against officers.
“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “If you’re doing your job right, anybody should be able to look at what you’re doing and community oversight might validate our officers and what they’re doing in our community.” Newsham said body cameras are “invaluable to give an objective accounting” of police interactions. The county has started using body cameras, but not all officers are issued one.
Newsham said that the department needs to have a “very thorough vetting” of all hirings to ensure the department isn’t hiring people with biases to address racial equity. He said the department also needs to emphasize bias training.
Newsham commended the county’s co-responder unit, which assists the department during mental health crises. The team includes an emergency services clinician and a crisis-intervention certified police officer. The county’s proposed budget for fiscal 2022, which starts July 1, includes funding to expand the program.
Activists have said Newsham resisted calls for more transparency within the district’s police department and had a contentious relationship with a progressive D.C. City Council.
During his tenure, MPD was sued multiple times by the American Civil Liberties Union, notably in 2018 for failing to adequately collect data on its so-called “stop-and-frisk” practice. The practice has been widely shown to disproportionately affect Black people throughout the country.
A judge ruled MPD had violated a city transparency law by not collecting and distributing a racial breakdown of stops made by the police department. When the information was released after a court order, it showed that a disproportionate number of police stops in Washington involved Black residents. At the time, Newsham said the data did not accurately represent the department’s activities.
As of Tuesday, it was unclear if the Prince William County Police Department uses stop and frisk.
In June 2020, Newsham said MPD officers felt “completely abandoned” by the D.C. City Council and pushed back on calls to remove resources from the department.
“I think we need to think carefully and thoughtfully before we do a politically correct, knee-jerk reaction to what’s going on in other parts of the country and all of a sudden downsize the size of our police department. That’s how I feel,” Newsham told WTOP at the time.
Similar defund movements in Prince William County haven’t gained traction with the Board of Supervisors.
Around the same time, WUSA reported that Newsham was critical of recently passed police reform legislation by the D.C. council. The new law banned chokeholds and speeded up the release of body-worn camera footage in police shootings. He said insinuations that the department wasn’t open to reform or moving forward were “deflating."
Newsham said Tuesday that D.C. saw about 1,000 protests in 2020, but “very few of those resulted in any type of police action.”
To avoid heavy police responses to protests, Newsham said the department needs to coordinate with organizers to facilitate their events and allow things to run smoothly. He said MPD had “difficulty” in the summer when “property was being destroyed” and “people were being injured.” At that point, he said, the department has “a responsibility to intervene and restore order."
Newsham appeared critical of federal law enforcement aggressively dispersing peaceful protests from Lafayette Park in June 2020, according to USA Today. The square across from the White House was cleared before a city curfew so President Donald Trump could walk to a historic church across the street for a photo shoot.
MPD was not involved with the actions at Lafayette Park, but did arrest more than 300 people throughout the city in the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.