As I sat in a small waiting area outside the chief’s office, I noticed a small stack of newspapers. The Post was not among them. Not a good sign, I thought.
I don’t recall the exact words Chief Charlie T. Deane and I exchanged when we sat down together in his office that day, but I remember clearly the sentiments we expressed.
I told him a bit about myself, and explained that I didn’t see us on opposing sides. I told him that my job was to report on his department, and that if people within it did something notably great, I would write about it. Likewise, if they did anything to break the public’s trust, I would write about it.
He listened, shared his perspective on policing and before I left, in a moment that struck skepticism and optimism in me, he promised to be open and honest in our interactions.
During the time I covered the department, and grew to know and care about the community, I found him to be both. One day in particular stands out. He called to tell me about an incident that had just happened. Without divulging the details of that private conversation, I can tell you that without that call, I would have likely ended up noting the incident in a one-paragraph news brief. Instead, I was able to write a story that offered an intimate look at the way some members of the community were suffering.
The story did not highlight any police action, heroic or otherwise, but it did lead to a family receiving the help it needed and sparked important community conversations. The quiet heads-up that made that possible struck me at the time and stayed with me all these years, because it showed a sense of investment in the public’s well-being that went beyond the department’s image.
Reporters can only tell the public what they know, and when it comes to policing, that has always been limited by the information law enforcement departments choose to divulge — through news releases, in official statements, during off-the-record conversations.
Local police reporters are among the hardest working people I know. They spend long, irregular hours gathering and compiling time-sensitive information, and go from one painful story to another. They knock on doors already knowing why someone is wailing on the other side. That work is only made more difficult when police departments aren’t transparent. Sometimes this comes in the form of omitting details, or releasing cryptic ones. Other times, it comes in delaying information from coming out. This is true, even when the subject is not about police misconduct.
Whether these information games are intentional or just the default mode of a department’s culture, they ultimately hurt law enforcement officers who go to work every day and try to do right by the community (and there are plenty of those).
Half-truth, missing-truths and still-waiting-on them-truths cut at the community’s trust in policing. And right now, in some places, that is hanging on by a sliver.
The video of George Floyd’s police-custody killing may have sparked protests across the country and led to calls to “Defund the Police,” but many people’s trust in law enforcement has long been eroding. One reason for that: the consistent failure of departments to release information fully and in a timely manner.
In April 2019, I wrote about a video that showed a D.C. police officer chasing a Black 9-year-old boy and handcuffing the child after he falls to the ground. The fourth-grader can be heard at one point letting out a cry. The boy hadn’t committed a crime, and the incident came weeks after D.C. police handcuffed another Black child, a 10-year-old boy who authorities found was “totally innocent.”
At the time, the ACLU was in a legal fight with the D.C. police department over its failure to comply with the NEAR Act, which requires officers to report specific information on the people they stop, such as a person’s gender, race and date of birth, along with the reason for the stop and whether an arrest resulted from it.
The department’s lack of transparency, an ACLU attorney told me at the time, “fuels community distrust, so when the cops are handcuffing kids, the reaction from the community is understandably suspicious.”
In that column, I wrote that I had filed a request with the department, under the Freedom of Information Act, for three pieces of information: How many children under the age of 13 have been stopped and detained by D.C. police officers in the past five years? How many of them were handcuffed? How many of those stops resulted in arrests?
“When I get those answers, I will share them with you,” I wrote. “And if I don’t get them, if they don’t exist, I will share that with you, too.”
Well, more than a year and a half later, I still don’t have those answers to share with you.
On Tuesday, it was announced that D.C. police Chief Peter Newsham will be leaving the city’s force to serve as the police chief in Prince William County.
His departure from one of the highest profile law enforcement jobs in the nation to head a department in a Northern Virginia suburb comes after notable clashes with city lawmakers over changes enacted in response to calls for police reform. One measure the D.C. Council passed requires the department to publicly identify officers who use deadly force and to post footage of the incidents.
In other words, it requires the department to open itself up to scrutiny. It allows, just as the NEAR Act does, for reporters and members of the public to see for themselves, among other things, whether Black boys are being subjected to situations White boys don’t face.
Newsham has not yet left his post, which will happen in February, but already people are envisioning his replacement as someone who is more responsive to the calls for change.
“Now is the time for a reform-minded leader at MPD,” D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said in a statement. “MPD needs someone who understands what real community policing looks like and why a public health-based approach is essential to crime prevention. The city needs a police chief who understands why people in our city have protested the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Deon Kay and Karon Hylton-Brown …”
The city does deserve a chief who understands the hurt and outrage and fear behind each of those names. It also deserves a chief who will embrace transparency to foster more trust between the public and the police, in the interest of both.
Hopefully, Newsham will be that chief for Prince William County. Because the people there deserve that, too.