Guest Host: Matt McCleskey

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

After an uptick in homicides in past weeks, D.C. officials, including the Metropolitan Police Department, are responding with a focus on illegal guns. We speak to D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham about the efforts, as well as questions about transparency and the NEAR Act, under which police are required to collect racial data on arrests and stop and frisks.

We’ll also talk through community policing initiatives, and how MPD responded to the prospect of increased immigration activity in the District — and we’ll also be taking your questions for Chief Newsham.

Produced by Maura Currie and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff

Guests

  • Peter Newsham Chief of Police, Metropolitan Police Department (Washington, DC); @ChiefNewsham
  • Alana Wise Reporting Fellow, Guns & America; @alanawise_

Transcript

  • 12:00:02

    MATT MCCLESKEYYou're listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on the WAMU 88.5. Good afternoon. I'm Matt McCleskey sitting in today for Kojo. D.C.'s local law enforcement has a lot on its plate at the moment including responding to a surge in homicides, which recently left seven people dead in the span of just a few days. And this week also marks the last in a four week court imposed deadline for the Metropolitan Police Department to start collecting more racial data on who it stops. Here to talk about that and more is the Chief of the Police for the District's Metropolitan Police Department, Peter Newsham. Also joining us Alana Wise a Reporting Fellow with Guns & American, a national reporting project based here at WAMU. Chief Newsham, thank you for being here.

  • 12:00:45

    PETER NEWSHAMMatt, thanks for having me.

  • 12:00:46

    MCCLESKEYAnd Alana, it's great to have you onboard as well.

  • 12:00:48

    ALANA WISEThank you.

  • 12:00:49

    MCCLESKEYWell, Chief Newsham, let's start with the recent surge in gun violence. Seven people shot and killed in the District in less than a week including an 11-year -old boy. What's going on?

  • 12:01:00

    NEWSHAMYou know, it's devastating when you see an 11-year-old boy lose their life to gun violence. That's a type of thing I think that none of us wants to see and we certainly can't tolerate in our city. And then to have the number of homicides that we had over that particular week that always kind of gets us engaged. It's always frustrating, because you're doing so much work to try and reduce gun violence on a daily basis. And to have a little uptick like that over the weekend is, you know, like I said it's frustrating.

  • 12:01:27

    NEWSHAMWe also had a father and a son, who were in their home who lost their lives over the in Trinidad -- in our Trinidad community. So, you know, whenever we have a little bit of spike that that over the course of a weekend we just have to reengage. We have to roll up our sleeves and try twice as hard to try and, you know, get these illegal guns out of our community.

  • 12:01:47

    MCCLESKEYAnd, of course, it's a long running issue. You, Mayor Bowser, and other officials including at the D.C. Office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, put the focus on illegal guns in the response to this similar outbreak just a little more than a year ago. We heard a lot about illegal guns in the aftermath of that. Do you know how many illegal guns there are in the District now in the police department's estimation and where they're coming from?

  • 12:02:09

    NEWSHAMYeah. It's hard to say exactly how many there are out there. Over the course of the last three years MPD has recovered as many as 6,000 illegal firearms off the street. So far this year since January we've recovered over 1,000 and we've actually recovered more this year than we had at this time last year. So there is certainly a sense by our police officers that the prevalence of firearms into our city is increasing. You mentioned, you know, the meeting we had the other day with our ATF and with the U.S. Attorney from here in the District, Jessie Liu and the U.S. Attorney from the eastern district of Virginia, where both of those U.S. attorneys, which I was very pleased to see, said they were going to take a very strong stance about trafficking guns into our community.

  • 12:02:56

    NEWSHAMFor the listeners who don't know, Virginia is the largest source state of illegal firearms into our community. Many of those firearms are purchased through what's called a straw purchase. And what a straw purchase is is somebody will -- in the state of Virginia, who lives in the state Virginia will purchase a firearm. They will sell it to somebody who lives in the District and they will report it either lost or stolen.

  • 12:03:23

    NEWSHAMA lot of times what I was hearing from the ATF what they're seeing in these straw purchases is you'll have somebody who wants a weapon for a crime essentially. And they will develop a relationship, often times it's a girlfriend or an acquaintance in Virginia. Essentially they'll be taken advantage of and they'll talk them into making one of these purchases. They'll say, you know, you're at very little risk. What we heard from the U.S. attorney out in northern Virginia was he said that there's not going to be any warnings. If you're involved in this type of behavior, they are going to prosecute. So you're going to get a felony and that can destroy a life.

  • 12:04:06

    NEWSHAMSo if people are listening and they come across somebody who is out there trying to take advantage of them please try to avoid being involved in that behavior.

  • 12:04:14

    MCCLESKEYYeah. Seems like if a single person was doing that over and over again it would be pretty easy to catch on to what they were doing. But if it's a different people each time it's harder to track down.

  • 12:04:21

    NEWSHAMIt's a lot more difficult. So we have had a couple of cases where we have, you know, somebody who's actually trafficking firearms. So they're do it on, you know, more consistent basis. But it seems like -- and this has been over the period of a number years that a lot of these guns are coming in through those straw purchases.

  • 12:04:39

    MCCLESKEYSo it must be frustrating, as you say, to get a large number of illegal guns off the streets in the city, but then to have more keep coming in.

  • 12:04:48

    NEWSHAMYeah, and so the other thing too if you think about a firearm, firearms literally last forever. You know, what I mean? Once a firearm is introduced in the city it doesn't come out of the city until we recover it and destroy it. Otherwise a firearm lasts forever.

  • 12:05:04

    MCCLESKEYWell, besides aiming to prosecute more aggressively what can the police department do to try to get guns off the streets? I mean, obviously you're already doing that. Do you feel like you're doing enough?

  • 12:05:14

    NEWSHAMYou know, we are doing a really good job. Our officers are engaging it. The thing you have to think about with police officers, whenever you're taking a firearm off the street and it's an extremely dangerous business so you got to be extremely careful. And, you know, that goes back to our training to make sure that when we are recovering these guns we do it in the safest way possible. But we do do a number of things, a lot of times by the way of search warrant. You know, or we get information from the public about people who are possessing firearms.

  • 12:05:44

    NEWSHAMAnd that's one of the places where, you know, when I talk to the community I always urge them, you know, if you see somebody out there carrying a firearm and, you know, you're like, 'I don't want them to get arrested. I don't want them to face, you know, the charge that they might get for carrying that gun. You got to think about the alternative. You know, the alternative is if they end up using that gun. If there's a circumstance that arises they could go into jail for many years.

  • 12:06:12

    NEWSHAMNot only would the person who gets shot have their life destroyed, but their lives could be destroyed by carrying that firearm. So really and the mayor said this the other day would you want to be responsible for somebody that you know being arrested for a firearm or arrested for killing an 11-year-old?

  • 12:06:28

    MCCLESKEYWell, I want to play a quick piece of tape for you. We spoke a little more than a year ago during the morning edition here on WAMU after there was an outbreak of gun violence over the Memorial Day weekend where a number of people were shot. And it was essentially a very similar conversation. Let's take a very quick moment of what you had to say then.

  • 12:06:47

    NEWSHAMI would like to see the criminal justice system focus on what happens after folks are arrested with these firearms. You know, they're illegal firearms because I think there has to be pretty serious consequences. I think the city has to say, Hey, listen. When it comes to gun violence, we're just not going to have it.

  • 12:07:05

    MCCLESKEYHow do you feel hearing that again? I mean, it is largely the same conversation. Is the problem just intractable?

  • 12:07:12

    NEWSHAMNo, not at all. And the other thing that -- you know, you have to put this all in perspective. You know, you look at violent crime in our city for the last 10 years and it has gone down pretty dramatically in 10 years. And so far this year violent crime in our city is actually down another two percent, but like I said, when you have a weekend like we had you lose an 11 year old boy. You lose a father and a son and it's all associated around gun violence. I think it's our responsibility as city leaders and as a police department to say, hey, listen. What we think is contributing to this is the illegal firearms that we have in our community.

  • 12:07:48

    NEWSHAMYou know, there's a lot of other efforts being done by community groups, folks in other D.C. government agencies and, you know, I think where people get it wrong if they think that one of those efforts is more important than one of the others. All of those efforts combined is what's going to keep us moving in a direction where we have less violent crime in our city.

  • 12:08:12

    MCCLESKEYYeah, it certainly does need to be a wide spreading effort to try to combat this.

  • 12:08:16

    NEWSHAMAbsolutely. And, you know, the other thing too is the police do play a role in this. I know some people, you know, there's a lot of anti-police sentiment out there. You have a really good police department here in Washington D.C. And, you know, our effort is to reduce violence and we're willing to cooperate and work with anyone who's on that same page.

  • 12:08:36

    MCCLESKEYAlana Wise from the Guns & America project here at WAMU.

  • 12:08:41

    WISEChief, you've mentioned that you don't feel that the current consequences for being caught an illegal gun are acting as a sufficient deterrent to these criminals. We often see them being repeat offenders by your estimate. Many of them especially last year go on to commit a number of the city's homicides. So my question is what would you see the mayor's office, the City Council, the Attorney General's office do to better increase or better regulate consequences for these crimes?

  • 12:09:09

    NEWSHAMSo, you know, you and I had this conversation the other day. You know, if we look back at the folks that we arrested for homicide in 2018, 50 percent of those folks had a prior gun arrest. What that tells me is to a very large degree -- and as you know 80 percent of the people that our killed in our city around 80 percent of the people that are killed in our city are killed by firearms. So what tells me is that once those folks were arrested the first time with a gun that whatever consequences that there were it didn't change the behavior because they've got they've picked up a gun and now they've taken somebody's life.

  • 12:09:48

    NEWSHAMAnd in those cases like I said earlier it's the family of the victim the community where that victim lives, they're all going to be impacted by that homicide, but also the person who pulled the trigger. Now they're going to be facing consequences that could really put them in jail for the rest of their lives. So I think that when it comes to illegal firearms in our community, the first time that we make the arrest that we need to find a way to focus on those individuals, because we know that a large number of those folks are going to go out and pick up a gun again. To come up with some kind of a plan or some kind of a consequence that makes them say that, I'm not going to do this again. I'm not going to pick up another gun.

  • 12:10:32

    NEWSHAMYou know, one of the motives that has increased in our homicides in recent years and you've heard me say this before is these disputes. You know, you have these disputes over the most minor things. Somebody has a readily accessible firearm. They use that firearm to settle the dispute. Somebody ends up either shot or killed and then you have somebody going to jail for a significant period of time. And I think that, you know, when I go across this city and I talk to folks nobody has an appetite for that anymore in our city. We don't want to read another story about an 11-year-old kid losing their life to unnecessary gun violence.

  • 12:11:09

    MCCLESKEYPeter Newsham is the Chief of Police for the District's Metropolitan Police Department. We're talking about the city's response after a recent outbreak of gun violence. We'll be right back.

  • 12:11:35

    MCCLESKEYWelcome back to The Kojo Nnamdi Show here on WAMU 88.5. I'm Matt McCleskey sitting in today for Kojo. Joining us in studio Peter Newsham, Chief of Police for D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department, also with me Alana Wise, a Reporting Fellow with Guns & America, a national reporting project that's based here at WAMU. Chief Newsham, we've been talking about the police department's response and the city's response to this recent outbreak of gun violence, but it's also a broad response that's required beyond just what the city can do. What's happening within communities seems to be very important as well. Community policing is something I've been hearing a lot about in recent years, and after this recent outbreak of violence as well. What can the department do to help foster community engagement?

  • 12:12:20

    NEWSHAMSo, you know, that's one of the things that I've learned in almost 30 years of policing is that the most important thing that we do as an agency is really to develop relationships with the community that we serve. You know, when I joined the police department in 1989 and through the early 90s, we had a very very bad reputation. We were not engaging with our community in a way that we should be. I think one of the results of that failure to communicate by MPD, it was what we saw in Mount Pleasant when we had the Mount Pleasant riots. And then, you know, I think over the years we have learned our lesson. We have gotten very much better.

  • 12:13:01

    NEWSHAMWe're very responsive to our community. Folks who are listening, anyone can email me or anyone of my command officials any time of day or night and you can expect a response to any concern that you might have or any suggestion that you might have. We do a lot of things with our kids, which I think is critical for building relationships with our young people at a very young age. As you know, we recently brought back the officer friendly program where our officers go into the schools and we give safety tips to the young kids. We brought back our side by side band and I don't know if either one of you have seen our side by side band. Alana, you haven't seen them? No.

  • 12:13:42

    WISEDon't think I have.

  • 12:13:43

    NEWSHAMMatt, have you seen them?

  • 12:13:44

    MCCLESKEYNo. I have not.

  • 12:13:45

    NEWSHAMYou guys have not seen our side by side band. Oh, that's -- you have to.

  • 12:13:47

    MCCLESKEYOh, they play at various festivals.

  • 12:13:49

    NEWSHAMThe police officers, yeah.

  • 12:13:50

    MCCLESKEYI have actually seen that playing --

  • 12:13:52

    NEWSHAMCovers.

  • 12:13:53

    MCCLESKEYYeah. Funk and go-go at some of the street parties.

  • 12:13:57

    NEWSHAMNow they've actually created a few of their own songs, which are very good. But that type of thing I think fosters a positive relationship between young people and the police. And I think we need to do more of that. And you know as well as I do there are young people in our community, who have very bad perceptions of the police. If you watch television or you watch the news you see often times police officers acting very very badly in very inappropriate ways. And one of the things about this profession is you have one person, who acts that way that wears this uniform and sometimes people will attribute that to all of us. We are probably the number one in line, who are disgusted by some of those behaviors that we see by police officers. And so I -- you know, like I said, we try to spend every single day trying to build positive relationships.

  • 12:14:51

    MCCLESKEYYeah, 'cause it seems one bad incident can damage a lot of work that you might have put in and a lot of officers might have put in.

  • 12:14:58

    NEWSHAMIt's like taking three steps back. You take one step forward -- and, you know, it happens with members of our agency from time to time. They're involved in an incident, which paints us in a very negative light. People attribute that to all of us. And like you said, talk about frustrating, when you're spending every day trying to build relationships, and you see something like that and then it gets covered over and over again. It's like taking three steps back.

  • 12:15:24

    MCCLESKEYI want to ask about, in terms of relations with the community, but also in terms of city policy about the NEAR Act, the 2016 law that among other things require that MPD collect data on race for every police stop involving an arrest or a stop and frisk. Stop and frisk, of course, has had some controversy around that as well, trying to get guns off the street but at the same time this lawsuit arising over sort of who's it looking at and who's being perhaps targeted by that law. Have you found that the stop and frisk effort has damaged community relations or made it hard for some of this engagement effort?

  • 12:15:57

    NEWSHAMWell, you know, there's two separate questions there. And I'll try to address them both. You know, we've never had a stop and frisk policy here in Washington D.C. That was something that they did up in New York City. It came out of the comp stat where what the commanders were measuring was how many stops were being made by their police officers. And so that ended up having the effective of having commanders going out and conducting more stops. And a court ruled that those stops were unjustified or unconstitutional.

  • 12:16:30

    NEWSHAMWe've never had a program like that here at MPD. To my recollection we've never had a situation where we measured the number of stops that our police officers were doing. Mostly a lot of our stops occur after a crime has occurred and somebody gives us a lookout for the person that was involved. And then our police officers will go out as you would expect them to do to stop anybody who fits that description.

  • 12:16:55

    NEWSHAMSo that's the answer to the stop and frisk question. I think there's a lot of confusion around that because you've heard some people call for a complete, you know, stop, stop and frisk. And we wouldn't be able to arrest anybody who committed a crime if we didn't do stops. It's one of the requirements of the job. And, you know, for the victim of a crime like I said they would expect the police department to stop somebody. If you were just robbed and you gave the police officer, the guy who just stopped me is wearing blue jeans and a white shirt you would expect the police officer to make a stop and make an arrest if that's necessary.

  • 12:17:31

    NEWSHAMWith regards to the NEAR Act, one of the requirements of the NEAR Act is that we collect very specific data around those stops. From the very beginning we've agreed that that would be very beneficial for us to have that information. There was a little bit of a lag since the NEAR Act was initiated. Initially there was very limited funding that was provided by the Council for the NEAR Act.

  • 12:17:55

    NEWSHAMWhen the funding did become available we engaged at MPD to make the corrections to our records management system so we could collect this data. We told, you know, folks all along that we expected to be able to do this by the summer of 2019. And I'm happy to report that we're in a position right now where we can collect this data. And in a way that it can be aggregated, which is really important.

  • 12:18:19

    MCCLESKEYHas there been a court order saying it had to be done by July 31st. You are going to be able to meet that deadline?

  • 12:18:24

    NEWSHAMWe are. And I was a little surprised and I said this publically by the court's order, because I'm sure that the court was aware that we were going to be in compliance this summer. So the court order really is not going to have much of an effect because we're going to be in compliance. And, you know, we want to be in compliance.

  • 12:18:41

    MCCLESKEYAlana Wise.

  • 12:18:42

    WISEAlso, mentioned in the NEAR Act was this increased funding for violence interrupters, which I think ties a lot into the violence we've been seeing on the streets as well as community policing. I'm curious if you could talk a little bit about how Metropolitan Police interacts with or works in conjunction with violence interrupters.

  • 12:19:01

    NEWSHAMYeah. There's a couple of things that were funded. You know, the One's Office here in the District under Director Del McFadden I think is doing a herculean job with their pathways program. I don't know if you're familiar with that, where they're taking some young men who are at-risk for either being the victims or the suspects in some very violent offenses and they're literally turning their lives around. They're providing them with wrap around services and they're really changing the course of some lives of some young people. Some young men in particular, who could end up being the victims of homicides or being involved in behavior, which would put them in jail for a significant period of time.

  • 12:19:44

    NEWSHAMWith regards to the violence interrupters, I know that there has been a lot of desire to have the violence interrupters out in our community. I think with regards to the violence interrupters time will tell whether or not that's having an impact. I don't think we have enough data right now to suggest that it's effective. I'm extremely hopeful that it will be effective. I think one of the challenges for the Council and I would say Councilmember Allen in particular is to measure that success to have some data to support funding that initiative. Like I said I'm very hopeful that it will be effective, and I think time will tell whether or not it will be.

  • 12:20:24

    MCCLESKEYWe got a tweet from a listener JusticeG is the handle. He says, 40 percent of D.C. gun possession cases are dismissed, suggesting, as he puts it, "Pervasive unconstitutional behavior by MPD." He wants to know what the chief is doing to ensure that officers, especially the gun recovery unit don't put getting gun over the constitution. Has that been an issue?

  • 12:20:43

    NEWSHAMYou know, absolutely not. We're not going to, you know, put away the constitution to make stops. Cases get dismissed for a number of reasons. I think for you to throw out a statistic like 40 percent without getting into the weeds and the detail of why the cases were dismissed I think is a little disingenuous. I think I know who, JusticeG is and he's a very strong advocate for ensuring that the police department abides by the constitution as are we. So, you know, I would agree that in no way, shape or form should we relax the standards of the constitution when we're making gun arrests.

  • 12:21:23

    MCCLESKEYAnd if the case is dismissed presumably the gun itself would remain off the streets.

  • 12:21:28

    NEWSHAMIt absolutely would. And I think like I said, you know, cases can get dismissed for multiple reasons. It's not always necessary an issue with a Fourth Amendment search, a Fourth Amendment issue. That is the case in, you know, in some of the cases. But to suggest that it's a case in 40 percent of the cases I think is like I said disingenuous.

  • 12:21:49

    MCCLESKEYI want to go a couple of callers, who have been waiting patiently on the line. Let's go first to Ron calling from Washington. Ron, go ahead. You're on the air.

  • 12:21:56

    RONGood afternoon, Matt. Thank you for taking my call. My concern is that there's an outsized focus on the illegal guns and not the illegal activity, which namely murder and attempted murder. If one didn't know better based on the discussions that we have here in the District and based on the mayor's recent press conference one would think that these guns are firing themselves, which, of course, they are not.

  • 12:22:18

    MCCLESKEYChief Newsham, what do you say? You got to focus on the behavior and the gun.

  • 12:22:22

    NEWSHAMYeah, absolutely. I mean, I don't think anybody is overlooking the behavior. I think, you know, we do everything that we possibly can, when somebody is involved in one of these violent offenses to ensure that the person that's responsible is held accountable. But I do hate to see -- and this is I guess one of the points where I might disagree with Ron. I hate to see a young person get themselves into a circumstance where they're going to be facing life in prison, because they decided to bring a gun out into the community on a particular evening, and they got themselves involved in a circumstance where that gun goes off.

  • 12:22:59

    NEWSHAMYou know, you talk about these kids that have been killed in the District. You talk about Maurie Scott. You know, you talk about Karon, who was just murdered a couple of weeks ago. In all likelihood those bullets weren't intended for those children. You shoot a weapon off in a city as small as ours, 67 square miles, that bullet doesn't have a name. It could hit anybody. It could hit a kid.

  • 12:23:26

    NEWSHAMAnd have somebody, you know, of course, to lose a child, but to have another person lose their life through incarceration, because of that is something that I think we, you know, as a police department we need to get that message out there. And say, you know, you pick up one of these illegal firearms, you're putting yourself in a really bad spot.

  • 12:23:43

    MCCLESKEYLet's turn to another caller. Now Daniel calling from Bethesda. Daniel, you're on the air.

  • 12:23:49

    DANIELHi. Thank you, chief. I'd actually like to speak directly to what, you know, you're kind of calling an interrupter of the violence. I represent an organization called onecommonunity.org, which has been in the District's schools for quite some time. We're in every ward in the District's 17 schools during the day time, and at this point we even have licensed mental health workers. And our specific purpose in the genesis of this organization was to break the grip of gun violence in D.C.

  • 12:24:21

    DANIELSo we teach mindfulness during the daytime in the schools. And what we're, you know, trying to do is give students and young people a different culture for dealing with conflict resolution versus, you know, what is being kind of the wild west, you know, This is where we live. This is how we handle our problems.

  • 12:24:46

    DANIELWe've actually created practices in meeting people where they are so that they have kind of practice of a stop, look and listen moment. So when they're agitated to the point of being able to act out of their mind basically that they have already in practice something that brings them back to themselves. And that, you know, allows them to accept responsibility before they, you know, act on a mindless moment. And we are -- as I said, we're in all of the wards of the District. We're in 17 schools. We're going out -- we're ready for our 20th anniversary.

  • 12:25:25

    DANIELSo just basically kind of bringing this out, because when I called last week on the same issue it seems like nobody has ever heard of us and we've been around. We got the John Thompson award. The leader of our organization got the John Thompson award last year. So I just want to bring it to bare, that not everything is about, you know, punishment for us. I mean, we're even changing detention rooms to intention rooms and addressing, you know, the root cause of a deviant behavior and meeting people where they are instead of simply punishing them.

  • 12:25:57

    MCCLESKEYThank you, Daniel, for your call. We'll let the chief respond. It certainly seems like this comprehensive approach is what it ultimately would take to bring down gun violence.

  • 12:26:07

    NEWSHAMYeah. First, Daniel thank you for what you're doing to be doing that for 20 years. I can say from the outside looking in that you are having an impact. I never proclaim to be somebody, who understands the human mind in the way that experts do and I certainly believe that your approach to, you know, having young people being able to deal or have tools in their tool kit to avoid conflicts or to resolve conflicts in a different way is critically important to all of our success. You know, when it comes to consequences and punishment people have to keep in mind we are the police department. When we sign up for this profession we raise our hands and we say that we are going to enforce the laws of the District of Columbia. I tell my officers all the time that that is our only role with regards to people, who break the law is to ensure that they are safely and respectfully brought into custody.

  • 12:27:09

    NEWSHAMAnd then we hand them over to the Criminal Justice System to meter out the consequences. And I'm just saying and I'll say it over and over again. I would like to see consequences for those, who are arrested for those who didn't take advantage of conflict resolution or tools that they've learned to avoid conflict. That when people are taken into custody that we have consequences that change behavior.

  • 12:27:31

    MCCLESKEYPeter Newsham, Chief of Police for the District's Metropolitan Police Department. Thanks so much for coming into the studio.

  • 12:27:37

    NEWSHAMThank you so much for having me on.

  • 12:27:38

    MCCLESKEYWe've also been joined by Alana Wise, Reporting Fellow with Guns & America, a national public radio reporting project based here at WAMU. Alana, thanks for being here.

  • 12:27:46

    WISEThank you.

  • 12:27:47

    MCCLESKEYWe're going to take a quick break. When we come back we'll be talking about the history of highway expansion, freeway expansion particularly here in the Washington region. Stay with us.

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