Protesters Beware: D.C. Mayor Appoints New Police Chief With Long Record of Mass Arrests and Depriving Rights

Peter Newsham defends past mass arrests that cost city millions in legal judgments.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) A. Katz

At a time when the right to protest in the nation’s capital has never been more important, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has appointed an abuser of First Amendment freedoms, Peter Newsham, as the city’s new police chief.

From the Pershing Park mass arrests of 2002 to dragnet arrests at Donald Trump’s inauguration, Newsham has shown a recurring pattern of violating protesters’ civil rights, said one of the lawyers who sued the city after the 2002 protests and won a multi-million-dollar judgement for protesters and policing practice reforms.

“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," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF), which also defended those arrested in New York’s Occupy protests.

But the stakes in Washington are arguably bigger than in other cities, as this is where the White House, Congress and top federal agencies are seated. Newsham’s appointment sends “a chilling message to all those who are coming out to stand in defense of targeted communities and against bigotry,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.

His use of mass arrests is a matter of public record. PCJF litigated the Pershing Park case, which resulted in more than $10 million in damages for nearly 400 persons and major changes in the city’s laws governing police handling of demonstrators ― laws Newsham apparently violated just one month ago.

After years of litigation, in which PCJF deposed Newsham under oath, federal courts found Newsham could be held liable for the mass violations of constitutional rights and dismissed his justifications as “nothing short of ludicrous.” In that case, the court found his mass arrest had no lawful basis and denied his request for qualified immunity, stating “[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 arrested and held for 24 hours or more, and hogtied in stress-and-duress positions. The D.C. Circuit described in ample detail “just how indefensible Newsham’s actions were.”

That litigation resulted in the D.C. City Council's enactment of the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act, which guides police responses to demonstrations, including when property is  damaged or violence occurs, to ensure that protesters are not wrongfully arrested. Yet Newsham appears to have violated this standard at Trump’s inauguration.

At the press announcement of his appointment, Newsham again dismissed his Pershing Park mass arrests, saying, “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… 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.”

Verheyden-Hilliard said nothing could be further from the truth.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Verheyden-Hilliard said the D.C. City Council should reject the mayor’s appointment of Newsham as police chief. But it likely won’t, casting an ominous shadow on protesters’ rights in the nation’s capital when acts of resistance are among the few options for citizens who disagree with Trump’s rule.

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).