D.C. mayor close to naming permanent police chief

The search for the District’s permanent police chief is entering its final stages, according to officials close to the mayor, with most if not all interviews complete and an announcement on Cathy L. Lanier’s replacement expected soon.

Little information has seeped out from the tight circle of advisers at the John A. Wilson building, led by Kevin Donahue, the deputy mayor for public safety. His group has narrowed a field of more than 100 applicants down to, at most, a few dozen identified as the most experienced and qualified to run one of the nation’s highest-profile police departments.

The leading contender remains Peter J. Newsham, who has been an assistant chief for 14 of his 27 years on the force and was tapped in August by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to serve as interim chief until a permanent replacement is named. Lanier left in September to take over security for the National Football League.

Newsham, who declined to comment on the search, has made no secret that he wants the top job, and he has not let his interim status stop him from implementing change or speaking out. He is ever-present at community crime walks and has made himself available to the media. He forged a deal to end a long-running dispute with the union over overtime pay and joined other chiefs opposing President Trump’s demands that local police help federal authorities seek out undocumented immigrants.

Officials with knowledge of the search process said the finalists are either current or former D.C. officers. Bowser did not launch a formal national search, preferring to hire from inside the department, though she entertained applicants from outside the force if they showed interest. Names of applicants have not been divulged.

Identities of some possible candidates have surfaced — among them assistant chiefs Robert J. Contee III and Diane Groomes. But giving Newsham the interim job for the past five months also provided him with a public platform not available to other candidates.

One of Bowser’s aides, who spoke on the condition of not being named because of the secretive selection process, said the mayor “has been pleased with the job that Chief Newsham has done in his interim position. He is certainly someone who is getting a very serious look at having the position permanently. That is a testament to how well the mayor thinks he has performed.”

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Bowser has not provided him any names. He called the long process for choosing Lanier’s successor “a mistake” and said Newsham should have been named permanent chief by now.

“Unless there is unhappiness in the acting incumbent, or there is a need for outside change, there’s no reason to risk undermining confidence within the department,” Mendelson said. “People should feel like there’s a promotional track. . . .I don’t know if it’s horrible that they’re dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, but it’s been four or five months and I think Peter Newsham is a good candidate.”

Officials in the mayor’s office had said they wanted to wait to decide on the police chief’s job until after a school chancellor had been chosen, and to get through President Trump’s inauguration.

In his time as interim chief, Newsham led security during the presidential inauguration, and protests, some of which turned violent. He also has headed the department through several police-involved shootings, including one of a motorcyclist who was unarmed. That shooting remains under grand jury review.

Contee, an assistant chief well liked by many District residents and who was pushed as a favorite by a vice president of the labor union representing D.C. officers, declined to comment. He heads human resources, which includes the academy’s recruiting division, the night life unit and disciplinary review. Other possible candidates could not be reached. The police union remains neutral.

Lanier had been regarded as one of the most popular chiefs in the country. Though homicides spiked in 2015, overall violent crime dropped during her tenure and the number of people killed on District streets hit lows not seen in decades. Under Lanier, the District had broken free of its “Murder Capital of America” namesake from the late 1980s and early ‘90s when crack cocaine flooded the streets and annual murders soared into the upper 400s.

Also, the District has escaped the shouts for wholesale police reform and angry protests over killings by police seen in cities such as New York, Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., Charlotte and Milwaukee. It’s also not had the seemingly out-of-control violence hitting Chicago.

Bowser’s chief spokesman, Kevin Harris, said the city’s chief executive understands that “not every major city has fared as well as the District . . . and her focus is ensuring we continue to do the things necessary that keep us moving in the right direction.” He said Bowser wants an “experienced candidate who believes in the power of working hand in hand with communities to fight crime” and “who can command both the respect of the community and rank-and-file police.”

D.C. Council Member Charles Allen (D Ward-6), chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, said he has purposely asked to not be briefed on candidate names because he will chair the panel leading the confirmation hearing.

But Allen said he would prefer a chief from inside the department who, like Lanier, worked her way up to the top post and managed to work under three mayors. “I think the biggest priority has to be the relationship of policing to the community,” Allen said.

But even more pressing, according to the council member, is bolstering a force that has lost members in the past few years, dropping from nearly 4,000 to roughly 3,750 officers, even as the city continues to grow.

“I think we have tremendous officers, but we also have to find ways to recruit, and retain the people and talent we have,” Allen said. One of his colleagues on the council, former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) is proposing raises and retention bonuses. Allen is pitching a housing incentives to help officers.

“Whoever the next permanent police chief is will have to focus on stabilizing our police force in terms of numbers,” Allen said.

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