Police Chief Addresses Hate Crimes

Peter Newsham, shown here addressing the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club membership at March’s meeting, was nominated by Mayor Muriel Bowser to serve as police chief on Feb. 23. The DC Council will vote on his appointment in April. 

Hate crimes in the District against individuals based on sexual orientation rose 148 percent.

At the March membership meeting, DC Police Chief Peter Newsham introduced himself to Gertrude Stein Democratic Club members and talked about his priorities as the city’s new law enforcement leader. But the night’s conversation was dominated by the results of DC’s 2016 hate crimes report, which showed an increase in crimes directed at the LGBT community. Hate crimes in the District against individuals based on sexual orientation rose 148 percent (27 cases in 2015 compared to 40 incidents 2016), and hate crimes against individuals based on gender identity or expression increased 190 percent (10 cases in 2015 to 19 cases in 2016), according to DC’s Bias-Related Crimes (Hate Crimes) Data report released on March 10. Also seeing increases last year were hate crimes against ethnic minorities and attacks based on religion.

Shortly after the release of the report, Mayor Muriel Bowser released the following statement: “In Washington, DC, we value diversity and inclusivity and want all of our residents and visitors to feel safe. No matter your race, your faith, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your background – you should be able to live, work and play in Washington, DC without fear of violence or discrimination,” said Mayor Bowser. “My administration will continue fostering a culture that encourages people to come forward when they are the victim of discrimination or a bias-related crime because in order to properly address these issues, we need everyone to feel safe reporting them.” 

Newsham hopes the rise in crime reporting is a direct result of more trust between underserved communities and the police. “People who have a better relationship with the police are more inclined to report those things (hate crimes incidents). That’s the optimist in me,” said Newsham, a 28-year Metropolitan Police Department veteran. “The pessimist in me would say that maybe the increase in hate crimes in our city is because of everything we have seen this past year with regards to the election. Maybe folks have become emboldened in their behavior of expressing hate more openly.”

Aside from speculation, Newsham can’t definitively point to a reason for the spike in hate crimes but he said his department will not tolerate it. Surprisingly, last year the District experienced a 10 percent decrease in all violent crime citywide, with a 17 percent reduction in homicides and a 13 percent reduction in robberies, according to statistics provided by Mayor Bowser’s state of the district address on March 30.

To combat this rash of hate crimes, Newsham told GSDC members that he will continue to work with the city’s most vulnerable and underserved communities. He will also continue to operate special liaison units, which will be moved directly under his command. The Special Liaison Branch supports community policing with communities that are underserved. Currently, the department operates an Asian Liaison Unit; Deaf and Hard of Hearing Liaison Unit; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liaison Unit; and a Latino Liaison Unit. A hotline number to specifically report hate crimes will continue to be used: (202) 727-0500, but he urged everyone to call 9-1-1 if they are in immediate danger. 

During a question and answer period, the police chief was lauded for his response after the March 12 attack on DC’s Casa Ruby LGBT Community Center. Minutes after a man walked in and assaulted a staffer and destroyed property, police were on the scene. According to a DC’s Fox 5 News report, Newsham showed up later that evening to personally reassure the center’s director that “the police will work diligently to arrest the suspect and prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law.” The suspect was arrested on March 13.