Peter Newsham served the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department for 31 years, including more than four years as chief. He resigned effective January 1, and on February 1 was sworn in as chief of the Prince William County, Virginia Police Department.

Chief Newsham spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about his approach to managing demonstrations during his time in Washington, DC, and how the events of January 6 may change the way police handle mass gatherings moving forward.

Chuck Wexler: What was your experience policing demonstrations in Washington?

Chief Newsham:  I think back on all the demonstrations I’ve been a part of through the years in Washington, DC. In 2020 we had at least 1,000 of them, and every single time, we learned something we didn’t know before.

One major lesson is that we have to work very closely with our federal partners. Every four years we host a Presidential inauguration, and if we didn’t have relationships with our federal partners for that event, we wouldn’t be successful. Many agencies come into play. The Secret Service Uniformed Division is primarily responsible for security at the White House. The U.S. Capitol Police has the primary responsibility for protecting the Capitol. The U.S. Park Police has responsibility for the monuments and some of the roadways. A lot of these large events crisscross through these various jurisdictions, so if you’re not talking with your federal partners, you’re not going to be successful.

Wexler: Events like inaugurations are planned well in advance, correct?

Chief Newsham:  Yes, about 18 months in advance you develop committees, and about a year in advance you start developing plans and strategies.

The Metropolitan Police Department brings in about 3,200 officers from agencies across the country to assist with the inauguration. Some are local, but we also bring folks in from as far as the West Coast. So you have to get airlines booked, you have to get hotels, you have to train them, and you have to get them deputized. It’s a big undertaking.

Wexler: What lessons have you learned about managing demonstrations over your career?

Chief Newsham: You have to always prepare for the worst and hope for the best. The challenge of any large event, particularly if there’s intelligence to suggest that there’s going to be trouble, is to identify exactly where and how that trouble is going to occur so you have resources to address it.

The other general approach is that you really don’t want to have to make arrests if you can avoid it. Arresting folks can drain your resources, particularly if they’re arrests of large numbers of people. So when there’s intelligence to suggest that there’s going to be trouble, your public communication, which should be repeated over and over, has to be: “In Washington, DC, we welcome anyone to our city who wants to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right. But if you come here and break the law, we’re going to do everything possible to make sure you’re held accountable.”

We don’t want to arrest anybody, but if somebody is out here destroying property or injuring somebody, we have a responsibility to take them into custody.  If things start getting broken, fires start getting set, or people start getting injured, we have to maintain order.

Wexler: When should police dress in riot gear?

Chief Newsham: There are a lot of folks who believe that when you start putting police officers in riot gear, it can exacerbate an otherwise peaceful situation, and there could be some truth to that. So your approach should be to not put on any of the gear unless it’s necessary. If rocks start getting thrown or incendiary devices are fired, obviously you have to put on the equipment.

Sometimes the protective equipment is time-consuming to put on, and you never know when a situation is going to evolve into something violent very quickly. So you need to have personnel staged in the area who are already wearing their protective equipment, and you can bring them in, in the event that something bad happens.

Wexler: What outside resources, such as mutual aid or the National Guard, are available, and how do you determine which outside resources you need?

Chief Newsham: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to use intelligence to decide how many people are going to come to any given event. That’s particularly true for people on the extremist side, because they’re trying to communicate in a way where law enforcement can’t pick up on those communications.

You’ll get a lot of different intelligence suggesting that events will occur in different parts of the city. Some of those will materialize, and some of them won’t.

A key piece is to have your intelligence unit on the ground on the day of the event to let you know if something is materializing and whether they’re seeing indicators of bad actors.

Wexler: Which outside resources are available to MPD?

Chief Newsham: There are a lot of federal agencies working in the city, and MPD can also call out to our surrounding jurisdictions if necessary. The response time is relatively quick. There are some very large police agencies within close proximity to the District. They can amass and send folks in quickly if necessary.

The FBI, DEA, ATF, Uniformed Secret Service, Park Police, and Capitol Police are available for assistance.

Wexler: When would you utilize the National Guard?

Chief Newsham: We have used them for every Presidential inauguration in recent memory. It didn’t get as much attention as the recent National Guard assistance since January 6, because there wasn’t any violence, fear, or anything like what we saw at the Capitol.

We have a good relationship with the DC National Guard. We’ve called them up for inaugurations and other events. The mayor called them up to assist with the COVID response. When we initially declared the public health emergency, we asked the National Guard to assist us with closing off some of the streets. So it’s not uncommon, but the numbers called up after January 6 were bigger than I could remember.

Wexler:  And the National Guard is mostly in a supportive role, correct?

Chief Newsham:  Absolutely. When we called them up for inaugurations, they would generally assist us with traffic posts and with metering folks into the Metro transit system. I can’t recall them being called up for civil disturbance-type support.

Wexler: What did you learn from the demonstrations this summer?

Chief Newsham: We started the summer with the riots after the murder of George Floyd. That was different from what we’ve seen from the far-right groups in the city. On May 30-31 we saw pretty widespread destruction of property, significant attacks on the police, fires set in the city, and some looting. Throughout the summer we saw some smaller instances of that same type of behavior.

When the far-right groups came into Washington, DC, it seemed like their intention was to find people from the left and physically assault them. They were trying to get down to Black Lives Matter Plaza, which is just north of Lafayette Square and the White House, and they were looking for people to assault. Our role in that was to ensure that the two groups didn’t come together. And, for the most part, the Metropolitan Police Department did a pretty remarkable job ensuring that that didn’t happen. Some assaults did occur, and we made some arrests. But, by and large, those large groups were not able to come together.

So the two types of events were very different. The riots after the George Floyd murder were directed towards property and the police. When we moved into the fall, with the very far-right extreme groups, they were intentionally looking for people to injure.

Wexler: What was your approach to chemical munitions?

Chief Newsham: We have all munitions available to us. We can use CS gas or tear gas, if necessary. Largely we use pepper spray. The only time we deploy munitions is if there’s assaultive behavior.

That’s something you have to control from a very high level, so a command official has to make that decision. It can’t be deployed by individuals. There has to be strict command and control.

Often if you deploy tear gas into these large groups, a couple things will happen. You’ll impact people who aren’t involved in the violence, and you don’t want that. And sometimes it can make the situation worse by creating more anger. So you want to defuse it as best you can without having to resort to tear gas.

Wexler: Going forward, what lessons do you expect will come out of the January 6th attack on the Capitol?

Chief Newsham:  Prior to January 6, we had two pretty large-scale events in Washington, DC. Members of the far-right group were intermingled with folks who came here to demonstrate. In both those prior instances, they gathered at Freedom Plaza near the White House and marched up to Capitol Hill. And in both those instances, after they went up to the Hill, they dispersed without incident.

On January 6th they marched up to the Hill, and we all saw what happened. Five people died, and many police officers were injured. Members of Congress, Senators, and the Vice President were holed up in the Capitol. The images we all saw are the type of thing nightmares are made of. It was disheartening, and, to many of us, I think it was embarrassing to see that happening in the Capitol of the United States.

Moving forward, that shows us pretty clearly what a group of folks can do without any really significant weaponry. They weren’t carrying long guns and they didn’t have grenades. I know they had some bear spray, some poles, and some were armed. But, by and large, there wasn’t heavy artillery or heavy weaponry used. And those crowds were able to very quickly overtake whatever police resources were there on the scene.

Wexler: Will it change staffing levels moving forward?

Chief Newsham: Throughout the summer, the riots after George Floyd’s murder, the Republican National Convention events held in the District, and the election period, we often had to mobilize the entire police department just to be prepared for those events. In some of those instances, we needed the whole police department, and in others, we didn’t, because it didn’t evolve into something extremely violent.

But that preparedness costs money. And there were some who criticized our use of those resources during the summer, saying it was excessive. Obviously nobody said that on January 6.

So elected leaders need to have their eyes open and understand that when police agencies spend this money, it’s to prevent bad things from happening.

Wexler: Do you think there will be more fencing around the Capitol permanently?

Chief Newsham: They erected fencing after January 6, but I don’t think the community will allow that to remain. It just doesn’t look like a free Capitol. We have to think about ways to protect the Capitol, but what we see today at the Capitol is not what we’re going to see moving forward. I’m not sure what it will eventually look like.

Wexler: What’s it like taking over the Prince William County Police Department?

Chief Newsham: It’s a really good police department with talented people. The people who built this agency, including Charlie Deane, built it on a foundation of honesty and integrity. I had the opportunity to talk with Charlie a couple times before I took the job, and he said that when he was Chief, he would bring every single person he hired into his office and talk about the importance of honesty. That resonates with every member of this agency.

I’m very excited. It’s going to require a lot of work on my part to get to know everybody in the agency and the community. Doing something like this after 31 years in law enforcement reinvigorates you, so I couldn’t be more pleased.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.