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Nominated D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham directed mass unconstitutional arrests

PCJF calls for D.C. Council to reject his appointment

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has today appointed Peter Newsham the Chief of Police. Newsham’s conduct from the Pershing Park mass arrests of 2002 to the dragnet arrests at Donald Trump’s inauguration just one month ago demonstrate that he is an unrepentant serial mass violator of civil rights and is not fit to be Chief of Police.

In response to the announcement from Mayor Bowser, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, stated: “As people are taking to the streets in the Trump era to protest throughout the United States, and in particular here in the nation’s capital, it is critical that fundamental First Amendment rights be afforded protection. Neither Washington, D.C., nor the Constitution, can afford to have a serial mass violator of civil rights and free expression placed at the helm of D.C.’s police force. Mayor Bowser’s nomination of Peter Newsham sends a chilling message to all those who are coming out to stand in defense of targeted communities and against bigotry.”

Newsham’s history with mass arrests is a matter of public record.The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund was class counsel and litigated the Pershing Park mass arrest case, which resulted in more than $10 million in damages for nearly 400 persons and major change in the laws governing police handling of demonstrators ― laws Peter Newsham violated just one month ago.

Over years of litigation the PCJF deposed Newsham under oath, and argued the case at the D.C. Circuit. The courts found Newsham could be held liable for the mass violations of constitutional rights and dismissed his attempted justifications as “nothing short of ludicrous.”

The court found that Newsham’s actions in conducting the sweeping arrest of nearly 400 demonstrators were without lawful basis and denied his request for qualified immunity, finding that “[n]o reasonable officer in Newsham’s position could have believed that probable cause existed to order the sudden arrest of every individual in Pershing Park.” Demonstrators were illegally mass arrested and held for 24 hours or more hogtied in stress-and-duress positions. The D.C. Circuit described in ample detail “just how indefensible Newsham’s actions were.”

Most significantly, the litigation resulted in the D.C. Council’s enactment of the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act. This law directly guides police handling of demonstrations ― including when there are acts of property damage or violence ― so as to ensure that others are not wrongfully arrested and deprived of their constitutional rights.

And it is this law that Peter Newsham appears to have willfully violated just one month ago.

Newsham repeats the same constitutional violations, despite claims

At the announcement of his appointment, Newsham again dismissed his egregious violations of the Constitution stating with regard to Pershing Park: “My decision at the time was a decision that I thought was in the best interest of the District of Columbia and of public safety,” he said. “But the Metropolitan Police Department learned a great deal from that experience that we have taken to today, and I think it was exhibited during the inauguration.”

According to Verheyden-Hilliard, “To this day Newsham refuses to acknowledge his extreme illegal misconduct in violating the civil rights of hundreds of people, despite the court rulings against him, making it clear that he is unwilling or incapable of upholding the Constitution. At the protests at Donald Trump’s inauguration just one month ago he plainly acted in willful violation of the law and engaged in yet another illegal mass dragnet arrest, including falsely arresting journalists and lawful protesters rather than those committing illegal acts, as well as deploying indiscriminate and brutal use of chemical munitions against civilians. Peter Newsham is unfit to be Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department.”

The PCJF is calling on the D.C. Council to reject the mayor’s appointment of Newsham.