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DC Police preparing for possible 'election unrest' with large tear gas purchase

DC Police Chief Peter Newsham defended a $130,000 purchase of tear gas canisters and grenades saying it could be needed to "effectively deal with illegal rioting."

WASHINGTON — DC Councilmembers asked tough questions to D.C.’s police chief Thursday after WUSA9 revealed the department had purchased more than $100,000 worth of tear gas canisters and grenades. Councilmembers wanted to know just what the department planned to do with that tear gas.

WUSA9 revealed records on Wednesday -- which were first obtained by American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop -- showing the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department purchasing $130,000 of so-called “less lethal” munitions and “training kits." That purchase was made June 1, the same day, and at the same hour, that federal police tear-gassed protesters around Lafayette Square Park.

DC Police Chief Peter Newsham told DC Councilmembers the purchase was in preparation for post-election protests and possible riots.

"In law enforcement circles, it is widely believed there will be civil unrest after the November election regardless of who wins," Newsham said. "Now is not the time to restrict the police department's ability to effectively deal with illegal rioting."

One hundred people, some of them recent protesters themselves, called on the DC Council to renew a police reform law mandating body camera footage be made public and banning the use of stop-and-frisk and chemical irritants.

"When the first device went off near my feet, something hit my elbow leaving it bleeding, and a large contusion on the side of my hand," Katherine Crowder said. 

She said she and other protesters were targeted by DC Police during peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in late May and early June. 

"People screamed and shouted, 'they’re still trying to kill us,'" Crowder said. "That was the impression left by MPD that night. They’re still trying to kill us."

Credit: Nathan Baca
CS and OC canisters found by WUSA9 near Lafayette Square Monday

DC Councilmember Charles Allen asked Newsham why a letter from the Council demanding answers on his department's use of pepper spray and tear gas during protests on Aug. 30 has not been answered.

"That’s true, you did not receive an answer," Newsham responded. "Yes sir." 

"So, why not?" Allen pushed back. "We’re coming up on two months now.”

"The response is being reviewed," Newsham replied. 

"Two months to get a response I think is a bit ridiculous," Allen said. 

A current D.C. law now bans DC Police from using any chemical irritants against “first amendment protests.”

DC Police commanders can make a decision in the field without police chief or mayoral input to use tear gas, according to Newsham. 

“What we look for is increasing intensity when it comes to riots by a large group within the group being involved in this behavior,” Newsham told councilmembers.

Newsham added that people throwing objects or assaulting officers can quickly change clothes and backpacks, making it difficult for officers to isolate those people in a protest crowd.

“Oftentimes, pepper spray is used when police officers are being assaulted on the front line,” Newsham said. 

Video from past incidents this summer show the chemical munitions MPD deploy on suspected agitators have a wide area of an effect that can surround peaceful protesters.

In preparation for possible election unrest, Newsham said the department will put more officers on the street beginning Oct. 31.

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