New MPD chief needs strong community relations, experts say

Media Credit: Keegan Mullen | Hatchet Photographer

Officials are still searching for a Metropolitan Police Chief after Cathy Lainer left for the NFL in September.

While District officials have been quiet on details about the search for a new Metropolitan Police Department chief, leading department members and experts say the incoming chief should have an in-depth understanding of the department and experience with real-world policing issues.

Former MPD Chief Cathy Lanier stepped down earlier this year to become the head of NFL Security. Experts say the new chief will need to fit in with the established daily practices and traditions Lanier set in her decade leading the department and commence a new era for the department.

Peter Newsham is currently serving as interim police chief, and Mayor Muriel Bowser is responsible for selecting a new chief.

Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue said in a testimony to the D.C. Council earlier this month the mayor will first appoint a new chancellor of D.C. Public Schools before she focuses on appointing a new police chief for the District. He said she would include the public in decisions on the new chief.

“One of the most important personnel decisions the mayor makes is selecting a chief of police,” he said. “After a decade of Chief Lanier’s leadership, we know we have some large shoes to fill, and we have great confidence in the experience and leadership of Interim Chief Newsham.”

Terrence Straub, the co-chairman of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Foundation, said while the foundation does not take a position on candidates for police chief, he and some of the other members of the foundation have supported interim police chief Newsham for the permanent job. Because the position will not be filled until after a new DCPS leader is named, it’s unknown how long he will remain the interim chief.

“Peter Newsham is intelligent, experienced and an approachable member of the command staff of the MPD in Washington,” Straub said.

Newsham has worked for MPD since 1989, according to his biography on the department’s website. He served as assistant chief in charge of the Office of Professional Responsibility, ROC North and the Internal Affairs Bureau and was the commander to the Second District, which includes Foggy Bottom.

Involving the community in the department’s work on a regular basis is necessary for police chiefs and one that Newsham already, Straub said. He said Newsham knows the system, the people of D.C. and the department and could make a smooth transition as the new chief.

“Newsham really hits the ground running,” Straub said.

The interim chief has taken a hands-on approach to leading the department. Newsham recently visited a woman who lost twin babies after a shooting in a carryout restaurant in Northeast D.C. He also attended an event promoting the neighborhood and law enforcement working together last month in Southeast D.C.

This kind of community policing has come to the forefront of a national conversation about relationships between police departments and the neighborhoods they work with, especially in light of killings of black men by officers across the country, including in D.C.

Representatives from the mayor’s office declined to provide details on whether they are looking inside or outside the department for the new chief or if they are considering hiring Newsham as the permanent chief.

Stephen Bigelow, the vice chairman of the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police, said the union no longer endorses candidates for police chief, and the group will work with whomever the mayor hires. The new union chairman, Matthew Mahl, said in the spring that the organization will not endorse candidates for political office, citing examples of city leaders whose rivals had received the union’s support, a local NBC affiliate reported.

“We’re looking for someone who will listen to our members, and their complaints,” Bigelow said.

Bigelow said the new chief will have to overcome a shortage of manpower within MPD. The number of officers in the department fell below 3,800 for the first time in a decade last year, and MPD is hiring about 30 new officers a month, a Second District Commander said at a neighborhood meeting in September.

Bigelow said the new chief will have to justify the cost of hiring new officers to taxpayers because the process of bringing in and hiring new recruits can cost $90,000 for each officer.

“We want someone who wants to do this job and wants to stay,” he said.

Andrew Scott, a retired police chief of Boca Raton, Fla. who now runs a police consulting company, said choosing a new chief of police can “entail a very lengthy process” including a multitude of oral interviews, interviews with the community, cognitive assessments and an interview with the head hiring administrator.

“Critical thinking skills are extremely important,” he said. “A police chief should be able to make decisions with limited information, relative to real life scenarios.”

Communication, leadership and the ability to work with the community are additional key qualities of a chief of police, he said, and the administration will likely be look within the department to determine if there is a candidate to replace Lanier.

“A good chief always grooms individuals underneath them to ultimately be able to take over in his or her position,” Scott said.

Joe Blaettler, a retired deputy police chief with 30 years of experience in police practices, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the mayor met with chief candidates herself to ensure that their views align with her views on policing.

“A mayor wants to hire someone who is line with their views of policing,” he said.

D.C. faces some unique policing challenges, as it serves as the nation’s capital, home to most of the country’s lawmakers. The District needs a police chief who has the experience to handle those security concerns, he said.

Blaettler added that Lanier rose up the ranks in the department on her way to becoming chief, so most of the department knew her already when she started leading the department and were comfortable with her leadership.

“The reality is no matter who they bring in there’s going to be a segment of the department that’s not happy with the choice,” he said.

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