D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham described as “a little disheartening” calls by a local group for banning police participation in next month’s Capital Pride parade and festival.
In an interview with the Washington Blade last week, Newsham said he was pleased that Capital Pride’s board of directors decided to retain police presence in Capital Pride’s events, turning down a request by the group No Justice No Pride that police be excluded.
“That to me is a good sign I think for the Metropolitan Police Department if the majority is inclined to have us be involved and participate,” he said. “I think that says a lot and speaks volumes about the relationship that we’ve been able to develop.”
Newsham, 54, who was confirmed by the D.C. Council on May 2 as the city’s 30th police chief, said he was aware of disagreements by some in the LGBT community over the way Capital Pride has carried out its events, including some who expressed opposition to corporate sponsors and calls for ending police participation.
“Personally it’s always a little disheartening when any group kind of shuts out the police from an event because we do kind of our damndest here in Washington, D.C. to develop relationships with our entire community,” Newsham said.
“So if a particular community feels as though the MPD in particular is not deserving of attending one of their events it’s hurtful,” he said. “But we would obviously honor that request. We wouldn’t be involved in something if they didn’t want us to be there.”
Members of No Justice No Pride have said one reason they were opposed to police presence at Capital Pride events is some members of the LGBT community, especially transgender women of color, are uncomfortable in the presence of uniformed police officers.
A fear of the police by some trans women stems from police tactics of enforcing so-called prostitution-free zones in the city by harassing and sometimes arresting transgender women for merely walking on the street, members of No Justice No Pride have said.
The Blade asked Newsham, who has been a member of the MPD since 1989, if those allegations were true and whether police have a policy or criteria for making prostitution arrests involving trans women.
“The first part of the question as to the relationship between the police department and our transgender community, I think if you look at the history of policing across the country police have not been particularly great actors in developing that relationship,” Newsham said. “There were a lot of I think historically bad actions by the police in that regard,” he said.
“And I think one of the things we have tried is to regain the trust in the transgender community in particular to show them that here in the MPD we are different,” Newsham continued. “We are not like that to the extent that there was that type of behavior in the past. We’re not going to be involved in that type of thing.”
He added, “If we do have individuals in the police department who are involved in treating anybody in our entire community in an inappropriate or disrespectful way, the managers at the Metropolitan Police Department will take that very seriously and it will be addressed.”
“With regards to prostitution, you know that is the law here in the District of Columbia that it is illegal,” Newsham said. “And the only time that we should be taking any action with regard to prostitution is if there is probable cause that it’s taking place.”
He said anyone who feels they have been treated improperly by police related to enforcement of anti-prostitution laws, especially members of the trans community, they should file a complaint at the police district station nearest to where the incident happened.
He noted that if someone is uncomfortable filing a complaint directly with the police they have the option of filing such a complaint with the city’s Office of Police Complaints, which is an independent city agency not connected to the police department that investigates complaints against police.
“The last thing we want to do is harass or intimidate anybody in our community,” Newsham said.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser named Newsham as interim police chief last September shortly after then Chief Cathy Lanier announced she was retiring from the force to become head of security operations for the National Football League.
One of Newsham’s first actions as interim chief was to transfer the department’s community liaison units, including the LGBT Liaison Unit, into the Office of the Chief of Police. He also promoted gay longtime Sgt. Brett Parson to the position of acting lieutenant and returned Parson to his former role as head of the liaison units.
Newsham said he believes elevating the liaison units to the status of an arm of the Office of the Chief was necessary, among other things, to send a signal to the community that these units representing the LGBT, Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, and Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities is a top priority for the department.
But he said the timing of his action was also a response to the outcome of last year’s presidential election.
“After the election I think a lot of people in this area, Washington, D.C. and the region, felt a little bit uncomfortable, feeling like the police department was going to change because the federal administration had changed,” Newsham said. “I thought that was a good time for us to kind of signal that we have not changed,” he said.
“We’re going to remain the same agency we have always been – committed to D.C. values. And that was kind of why I did that and brought Brett back,” he said.
Following is the text of Chief Peter Newsham’s interview with the Washington Blade on May 11:
Washington Blade: Can you tell a little about the changes you have made with the Metropolitan Police Department’s LGBT Liaison Unit since you became chief of police?
Peter Newsham: I think you’re aware that I moved all the special liaison units under the Office of the Chief of Police under one of my directors, director Kelly O’Mara. I also made Brett Parson an acting lieutenant to oversee our LGBT Liaison Unit. I have always felt maybe having them report to the chief’s office was a good idea.
But after the election I think a lot of people in this area, Washington, D.C. and the region, felt a little bit uncomfortable, feeling like the police department was going to change because the federal administration had changed. I thought that was a good time for us to kind of signal that we have not changed. We’re going to remain the same agency we have always been — committed to D.C. values. And that was kind of why I did that and brought Brett back.
I never really from where I sat understood why Brett left. And when I approached him and asked him to come back he seemed like he was very happy to do it. And I actually believe that he has become more energized being back in that role. I think that was a win-win for everyone.
Blade: Is he heading all of the liaison units?
Newsham: He is.
Blade: One of the things some in the community expressed concern about prior to your becoming chief was that the liaison units, particularly the LGBT Liaison Unit, appeared to be shrinking in size due to attrition and members who left were not being replaced. Do you know what the size of the LGBT Liaison Unit is now and is there a policy for retaining its size when members leave?
Newsham: Well you can never really set a firm policy on a staffing number because the size of the department right now fluctuates. You have to staff units proportionately for what you have available for the entire city. But right now we have one sergeant, Jessica Hawkins, three officers and two senior police officers who I think folks are very familiar with. And then every month we have two affiliates.
And I think you’re familiar with our affiliate program where we bring folks in who are interested and they work with the unit and they learn some of the skills that the unit has and then they actually go back to their district. We have an LGBT community throughout the entire city. And the idea behind having the affiliates is it’s a kind of training.
First of all they become familiar with some of the leaders in the community. And they also learn from some of the experts who have been in the liaison unit for a period of time. And then they can take those skills back to their district. I think that part of the program is a very good part of it.
So to answer your question, I have no intention right now to increase or reduce the size of it. I have not heard any concerns from the community that they felt like the unit was not sufficient. As a matter of fact, the feedback I’m getting now is the people are very pleased to see Brett back in the unit.
Blade: Another concern that had been expressed prior to you becoming chief was that the permanent members of the liaison units were required to spend a certain period each month on another assignment unrelated to the liaison unit. In some cases we were told they were being assigned to unrelated duties each day during their shift possible due to a shortage of patrol officers throughout the department. Is that still going on and can that be addressed in a way that would enable the liaison officers to spend all of their time in those units?
Newsham: Well I don’t think it is going on. My understanding is that the folks that are assigned to the unit are working in the unit. I don’t know of any shortages right now where we would need to pull them for other assignments. Whenever we mobilize the police department all of our police officers need to be involved. But that’s pretty infrequent. And the other piece to this is we expect all of our police officers, if something were to happen in an emergency type situation that they would take police action. So that would take them outside of their normal role. But other than those few instances they’re going to be committed to the unit.
Blade: Is there still some type of LGBT related training that takes place at the police academy or that might apply to officers already on the force?
Newsham: Yes they do have that training. All of our recruit officers are trained. And then all of our officers per year get four hours in class and four hours online with an emphasis on transgender bias related crimes and intimate partner violence in the LGBT community. So that’s something I think we’re going to be doing ongoing for the next several years.
Blade: Is that for the academy and for officer that are already on the force?
Newsham: Exactly. So the recruits get it but also all of our officers in our professional development training get it.
Blade: In the last week or two there have been some issues going on related to the annual LGBT Pride events. A dissident group has surfaced that wants to change the Pride events in various ways including banning the police from marching in the parade and being present at the Pride festival the day after the parade. Have you heard about that? Do you have any thoughts about that?
Newsham: I have. I have been following that. There seems to be a group that is opposed to some of the things that the folks that are organizing the Pride event are doing. And a couple of the things I have seen is there is some opposition to some of the sponsors. And like you said, there’s some opposition to police involvement. Whenever we have an event here in the city of large groups we do whatever we can to facilitate that.
And groups are entitled to express their discontent for whatever their particular issue is. And we’re going to facilitate that. That’s what we do here in Washington, D.C. To the extent that a particular group doesn’t want the police to be involved in their event we will obviously honor that in every way other than we will still have a responsibility, for example, if streets are needed to be closed or if there is a public health issue that occurs as a result of a large gathering — whether it be heat or cold or if someone is injured in some way we’ll have that responsibility to respond to make sure people are safe.
Personally it’s always a little disheartening when any group kind of shuts out the police from an event because we do kind of our damndest here in Washington, D.C. to develop relationships with our entire community. So if a particular community feels as though the Metropolitan Police Department in particular is not deserving of attending one of their events – it’s hurtful. But we would obviously honor that request. We wouldn’t be involved in something if they didn’t want us to be there.
Blade: The organization putting on these events, Capital Pride, turned down the request by this group to ban the police. The Capital Pride leaders said they believe the majority of the LGBT community welcomes the police.
Newsham: That to me is a good sign I think for the MPD if the majority is inclined to have us be involved and participate. I think that says a lot and speaks volumes about the relationship that we’ve been able to develop.
Blade: Members of this group said the reason they didn’t want the police involved is that some members of the LGBT community, especially transgender women of color, would be uncomfortable with a police presence. They said that when police enforce so-called prostitution free zones D.C. police have been harassing transgender women just for walking on the street. Could that have happened and is there a criteria that the police use to enforce the prostitution laws in situations like this?
Newsham: That’s kind of a very detailed question. The first part of the question as to the relationship between the police department and our transgender community, I think if you look at the history of policing across the country police have not been particularly great actors in developing that relationship. There was a lot of I think historically bad actions by the police in that regard. And I think one of the things we have tried is to regain the trust in the transgender community in particular to show them that here in the MPD we are different. We are not like that to the extent that there was that type of behavior in the past. We’re not going to be involved in that kind of thing.
If we do have individuals in the police department who are involved in treating anybody in our entire community in an inappropriate or disrespectful way the managers at the Metropolitan Police Department will take that very seriously and it will be addressed.
With regards to prostitution, you know that is the law here in the District of Columbia that it is illegal. And the only time that we should be taking any action with regard to prostitution is if there is probable cause established that it’s taking place. So any type of harassment – and this is a hard thing too for transgender folks in particular is that they don’t necessarily trust the system. But what I urge them to do if they feel they are being treated inappropriately or that they are being harassed, please let us know. There is also an Office of Police Complaints that they can go to if they don’t trust the police. So we can address those issues to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The last thing we want to do is harass or intimidate anybody in our community.
Blade: You may have heard that some prominent national organizations like Amnesty International and locally the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance have called for decriminalization of prostitution in cases where consenting adults are involved. They have pointed out that some are engaging in prostitution as a means of economic survival and arresting and prosecuting them only makes matters worse for them. It is unlikely that the D.C. City Council will do this. But do the police have the discretion or option of setting priorities on which types of areas you devote your resources to?
Newsham: I would say the way we allocate resources for all of our crimes – of course violent crime is our number one priority here in the city. We’re trying to reduce that down to zero. And we’ve had pretty good success in recent years in driving that down. And then with any other crime that’s not a violent crime if it happens in the police presence or if there is information that we can get to and we can close the case we have a team of people who do that on a regular basis. And for something like prostitution what we do with regards to allocating resources – generally it is based on complaints.
So if we have a complaint about it in a particular area – if there are people who are concerned about it happening in a particular area, it’s disrupting their neighborhood in some way then if they ask us to do that we will generally react to that. And it is against the law right now regardless of whether or not it should be decriminalized. That’s not a decision for the police. That’s a decision for the Council. So for the folks who are advocating this they have some very good points. I think there may be some points on the other side. And that’s what the legislature is for – to consider all that information and make a decision based on their constituencies in what the city wants with regard to the statutes.
Blade: What is the police policy for disclosing or not disclosing whether a crime victim is gay, lesbian or transgender if it’s not a hate crime but an LGBT person may be targeted?
Newsham: I don’t think we have a specific policy on that disclosure. I’m not sure what you’re asking.
Blade: Your predecessor, Chief Lanier, told the Blade some years ago that for privacy reasons she did not think it was appropriate to disclose whether a crime victim was gay, lesbian or transgender unless it was specifically related to their sexual orientation or gender identity in some way. I’m asking that because in past years we learned of many more so-called pick-up crimes in which mostly gay men would meet someone in a bar or other meeting place and a suspect would pose as a willing partner to get invited to the victim’s home and they assault and rob them and sometimes murder them. Police said then that these weren’t hate crimes because robbery was the motive. But the perpetrators were certainly targeting gay people for these crimes. We don’t hear very much of that anymore. Could it be far fewer incidents like this are happening or could it be we aren’t hearing about it because the police aren’t reporting it?
Newsham: I would say that’s really one of the reasons that we have our special liaison unit. If we do have a crime and we believe it’s going to impact a particular community, that’s a vehicle for getting that information to that community. I’m not aware of any of those types of cases going on in a patterned way in the District of Columbia right now. If there were and a particular group was being targeted I would feel that it would be my responsibility to let the affected communities know that they could potentially be in jeopardy. I think that’s a safety issue. There are privacy rules. There are wishes of the victim that have to be considered. We have to weigh that in every particular case. And then you weigh that against the public safety interest.
And so if you think there’s a particular – like I say, any group within our community that’s being targeted for any reason I think we have a responsibility to let that community know. But like I said, right now there’s none that I’m aware of where there’s a pattern going on. And I would be aware if something like that were going on.
Blade: There’s been a flurry of MPD announcements and press releases in recent months of missing person cases, which call on the public to help find the person. Do you know whether any LGBT people have been reported missing as part of this flurry of announcements?
Newsham: Do I know if any have? I would say in all likelihood they have. Do we note that designation when they go missing? We do not. The missing person issue that has been widely reported is that it began in December when we brought in a new commander in the Family Services Division. She began using social media to put our missing person images out to the public and we started to get those cases publicized a lot more than they used to be publicized. The result is there were a lot of concerns that we had more missing persons and there was an uptick in missing persons, which wasn’t the case.
There were some who suggested that maybe we should stop doing that. We didn’t feel comfortable about that [suggestion] because there were two things we were able to achieve by putting those images out the way we did. The first is we were able to find people quicker than we did in the past. And the second thing – I think it drew some awareness to how many young people in particular that go missing in the District on a regular basis.
Blade: Can you say how many of them are eventually found?
Newsham: Oh yeah, the large majority of them are found, like in the 99 percentile. So whenever you look at the number of kids that are currently out missing or any number of people that are out missing – that number changes every day because we find them. And we’re doing a pretty good job now of notifying the public when we do find them. And then some more will be reported missing. So it’s almost like the glass is filling up and emptying every single day.
Blade: There is a pending lawsuit filed by a gay former cop who is suing the MPD and the city for allegedly being severely harassed because of his sexual orientation in the Fourth District, where he was stationed back in 2012. Do you think that kind of harassment is prevalent or a rarity within the MPD at this time and is there an internal procedure for the police to address something like that if your own officers are being harassed?
Newsham: You don’t want to see that in any workplace. To the extent that we’re able to identify that type of behavior here at MPD it won’t be tolerated. We don’t want our employees to feel uncomfortable being at or coming to work just because of who they are. That’s something that we don’t tolerate. We’re against hate in our community but we’re just as vigilant against hate within the police department. And yeah, if somebody feels like they’re being treated unfairly because of who they are they need to let us know and hopefully they’ll feel comfortable that it’s going to be addressed and we’ll put a stop to it.