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Mayor Muriel Bowser ignored calls for community engagement and a national search for D.C.’s next top cop, and instead opted to promote a career Metropolitan Police Department official, Robert Contee III. Contee is currently the assistant chief of the investigative services bureau and started his career as a cadet with MPD when he was 17. He will replace Chief Peter Newsham, also a career MPD officer, who took a job as the chief in Prince William County, Virginia.
In a press briefing today, Bowser said she did not interview any other candidates for the job and wanted to avoid a “prolonged human resources process.”
“We have a sense of what and who is out there, and we know the exceptional preparedness of Chief Contee,” Bowser said. “I think it is my job to make sure that one of the largest and most critical agencies in our government has a leader.”
In a bit of irony, Contee emphasized his commitment to building relationships and engaging with the community as D.C.’s next chief.
“I think it’s important to ensure the community is part of the conversation that will take place regarding public safety,” he said. “It’s easy for me to shove a strategy down the public’s throat. But it’s important for the community to be part of the conversation.”
In a departure from his predecessor, Contee delivered an engaging and energetic speech with details about how his upbringing in the Carver Terrace neighborhood in Northeast D.C. drives his views on policing.
Contee recalled seeing his father’s drug stash in the freezer as a kid, the “syringes he used to put poison in his veins,” and the homemade crack pipes that replaced syringes. He recognized that his father was sick with addiction, and was not an inherently violent person, who needed treatment, not incarceration.
He also credited his mother, who would not tolerate half-hearted efforts, and, standing all of 4’11”, reminded him that if she had to stand on a chair to “kick my butt,” she would do so.
Parroting two of the mayor’s favorite phrases, Contee pointed to his acceptance into the police academy as his “fair shot,” and pledged as chief to “be laser-focused on crime.”
At today’s media briefing, Newsham congratulated Contee and praised the mayor’s selection.
“Mayor Bowser, one of her talents is being able to select really good police chiefs,” Newsham said. “That’s funny because she’s only selected one, and that was me.”
In response to reporters’ questions, Contee mostly avoided speaking specifically about any changes he’ll seek within the department’s structure or operations, leaning on his belief that the community should be involved in those conversations.
Calls for rethinking police officers’ roles in the District are growing louder this year. Sustained protests against police brutality and racial injustice in policing in D.C. and throughout the country have pushed lawmakers to consider alternatives to law enforcement responses to certain incidents. The D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety heard testimony last week, for example, pushing for counselors to respond to people in mental health crisis or drug addiction.
At-Large Councilmember Robert White says he wasn’t surprised by Bowser’s choice and has had “consistently positive interactions with Chief Contee.”
White says he’s hopeful about Contee’s leadership, but says he’ll face hurdles early on, “including real concerns that someone from inside the department is going to have to navigate the baggage of his predecessor and navigate building relationships with the community that wants to see a new approach to policing with a mayor who I think doesn’t share that perspective.”
White says he was impressed with Contee’s speech today, and his commitment to community engagement and building relationships, but noted that he didn’t hear any specific commitment to “changes in process and operation that this time requires.”
“I’m trying to remain open minded,” White says. “None of us have all the answers and this is an opportunity for a new direction. I gotta remain optimistic that we’re going to take this opportunity unless I see otherwise.”
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, whose office prosecutes juvenile and misdemeanor crime in the District, praised Contee for his support of kids in the social safety net and criminal justice systems.
“I think he has a public health approach to criminal justice,” Racine tells LL. “He knows you can’t lock people up for decades.”
Racine calls Contee “honest, transparent, accountable, and collaborative.” And he says Contee played a key role in developing a policy in MPD of issuing citations for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, rather than making an arrest.
“The majority of people who interact with police, think George Floyd, are suspected of having committed misdemeanors,” Racine says. “The chief gets that, and I think you’re going to see more criminal justice reform that’s evidence-based and is what the community is looking for.”
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the judiciary committee, released a statement saying he’s looking to hear from Contee about “how his approach to leadership will address the challenges in public safety and policing that we face as a city. This moment demands someone prepared to tackle systemic racism in the District and within policing culture, repair relationships in the communities served by MPD, advance a public health approach to eliminating violence, and use the law and Constitution to demonstrate empathy, humility, innovation, and vision.”
The D.C. Police Union released a statement in support of Contee’s nomination. The ACLU of D.C. expressed disappointment in Bowser for forgoing the public engagement many, including the ACLU, were calling for.
“We look forward to a robust confirmation process with the D.C. Coucil and hearing how Assistant Chief Contee will distinguish his leadership from that of his predecessor’s,” ACLU spokesperson Suzanne Ito writes in an email.
In his speech this morning, Contee addressed MPD’s officers directly.
“I know your job is not easy,” he said. “You can expect me to model the behavior that I expect from you. You can expect me to build relationships. Please keep in mind that no matter what happens, we are the chosen guardians. … Sometimes we may stumble along the way, but as Momma would remind me, we will keep trying until we get it right.”