Chief Robert Contee speaking into a speaker
MPD Chief Robert Contee Credit: Courtesy of MPD

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Why the hell anyone would want to lead the Metropolitan Police Department, LL does not know. On any given day, D.C.’s police chief must juggle demands from the mayor, the D.C. Council, the department brass, rank-and-file officers, advocates, lawyers, judges, neighboring police agencies, reporters, and, most importantly, residents. Each of them have their own agenda and their priorities don’t always align.

Homicides in D.C. are spiking this year; currently, the number of homicides is 34 percent higher than at this point in 2020. Last year, D.C. recorded a 16-year high in homicides. The Council decreased Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed police budget last year, and there is political will to reduce the size of the force going forward—against the department’s wishes.

Lawsuits accuse MPD officers of using excessive force, perpetuating racial discrimination, trampling on civil rights, and withholding data. Those statistics on police stops, when finally pried loose following legal action, show that MPD officers stop and search Black people more than any other race or ethnicity, according to the ACLU of D.C.’s analysis.

A recent auditor’s report revealed the department has failed to adequately investigate its officers’ use of deadly force, calling into question MPD’s conclusions that officers’ actions were justified in some cases.

Oh, and the entire country is in the midst of a reimagining of the role police play in a fair and just society. One of the loudest calls is for cutting police budgets to fund non
police services.

Yet, Robert Contee still wants the job. The 48-year-old, who grew up in the Carver Terrace neighborhood of Ward 5 and lives now in Ward 3, joined MPD as a cadet in 1989. He rose to the very top when Bowser nominated him to replace outgoing Chief Peter Newsham earlier this year. The D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety voted unanimously last week to move Contee’s nomination to the full Council. A final vote has not been scheduled but could take place as soon as April 20, according to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

In the meantime, stakeholders have laid out their priorities for the new chief in reports, public hearings, and interviews with LL over the past month. The most frequent demand is better transparency. While some believe the rot inside MPD is too deep for any one person to fix, others are cautiously optimistic about Contee.

“I think that most of us feel encouraged by the way he has answered many of those questions, but it’s a whole other thing to put in practice,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the public safety committee. “Implementing the answers to questions and the big ideas he has into action that residents feel on the street” is a major priority. What follows is a non-exhaustive to-do list for Contee, whose confirmation as D.C.’s top cop appears imminent.

In a brief interview this week, Contee laid out his top two priorities. No. 1: Reduce violent crime. No. 2: Increase MPD’s engagement with the community.

“We want to make positive investments in the community bank,” he says. “And the only way to do that, in addition to driving down crime, is to find opportunities to positively engage the community.”

Release MPD’s internal investigations into uses of force.

The Bromwich Group, commissioned by the Office of the D.C. Auditor to review police killings of four young Black men in 2018 and 2019, recommended MPD publicly release its final investigative reports into those deadly incidents and any deadly incidents going forward.

Michael Bromwich, who led the review, is encouraged by Contee’s willingness to implement his recommendations, including the release of internal use of force investigations. “But it bears watching,” he says. “Because they said they would implement a bunch of recommendations in 2016 and they didn’t. There needs to be continued oversight to ensure it goes beyond lip service.”

Contee initially pledged to implement all of the auditor’s recommendations, but he has since backed away from that promise. In an interview this week, he says, “I’m not sure what all the obstacles are we need to overcome to get there,” but “my goal is to get to a ‘yes’ for serious uses of force, making sure the public has visibility in that.” Redacting the names of officers who are not involved is one question in his mind.

He does not support releasing investigations of non-serious uses of force, like the use of pepper spray or a takedown that doesn’t result in injury.

Reestablish a specialized team to investigate uses of force.

The Bromwich report also recommended MPD revive its Force Investigations Team with officers that specialize in use of force investigations. MPD merged the FIT with its Internal Affairs Bureau in 2012 after its caseload decreased. The report recommends MPD either reestablish the FIT or provide “intensive, specialized training to a select group of [internal affairs] investigators.” Contee says he’s already working to train officers specifically for use of force investigations

Release disciplinary records.

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George is looking to introduce legislation later this year that would make police disciplinary records public. She notes that New York City began publishing similar records online after the state Legislature repealed a law that kept NYPD’s records sealed.

Office of Police Complaints Director Michael Tobin also believes disciplinary records should be made public. Currently, OPC can only release sustained complaints in response to a Freedom of Information Act request if the requester first identifies the officer.

“It would do great service to the police chief to support publishing all disciplinary data regarding the police department so the community can be aware of the disciplinary process and have a better understanding of what happens when a complaint is submitted and if an officer faces discipline,” he says. “It should not be a secret anymore.”

Contee says he’s not in favor of releasing records of unsustained complaints out of concern for the impact it could have on an officer’s career and safety. But he’s open to a discussion about releasing other disciplinary records.

“I’m doing a series of listening sessions and would want to have a discussion with the community about that, whether that’s of interest to the community as a whole,” he says. “And I’ll have to discuss it with the union. I don’t want to make that decision just because I’m on this interview. It has to be well thought out and in line with best practices.”

Collect and publish essential data.

The Police Reform Commission wants MPD to collect, analyze, and publish data on stops, protective pat-downs, searches, search warrants, arrests, uses of force, and canine use. That data should drive the department’s policies, training, supervision, and discipline.

The commission requested data and other details about MPD’s practices, but the department could only provide some of the requested information. That failure indicates MPD “does not engage in the type of rigorous self-evaluation required to properly supervise officers, correct departmental deficiencies, and improve departmental performance,” the commission’s report says. “It also suggests that MPD does not have a culture of valuing transparency, even though transparency is a core aspect of policing in a democratic society.”

Allow civilian authorization for MPD policies.

The Police Complaints Board has had an advisory role over MPD for years. OPC Director Tobin says it’s time to give the board approval authority over the department’s policies.

“That system has not worked, and it’s time to move on to a new system of mandatory consent by the community when it comes to policies and procedures of the department,” he says.

The lack of meaningful community input on police policies and procedures is one of the biggest shortcomings for the department in terms of community trust, Tobin says. “And if we can change that and if the chief is amenable to those changes, that would send a message to the community, ‘Yes, the new chief is in favor of community oversight,’ and I think that would improve community trust,” he says.

Contee isn’t going for it. “If that’s the case, OPC should be running the police department,” he says to the idea of civilian approval of MPD policies. He prefers OPC work directly with him on policy recommendations first.

“Whether their recommendations were rejected or not, it had to do with whoever was the chief at the time,” Contee says. “But at the end of the day, I think the police chief has the responsibility for the police department and an advisory capacity [for OPC], I think, is sufficient.”

Suspend the Gun Recovery Unit.

A notorious team of MPD officers known as the Gun Recovery Unit is tasked with finding illegal guns. In doing so, officers often use aggressive and sometimes unconstitutional tactics, such as “jump outs.” The unit also came under fire for its logo, which features a skull and crossbones with a bullet hole through its head and a banner that reads “Vest Up One In The Chamber.”

Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray questioned Contee during his confirmation hearing about the unit’s leadership, saying “that seemed to be the issue to me.”

After Contee indicated he is changing the GRU’s tactics, not its leadership, George echoed Gray by asking, “if we’re going to have the same officers and the same consequences, then how are we going to get different results?”

Contee said he personally met with GRU leaders and members to emphasize his expectations. He said the unit will stop using tactics that “were particularly harmful to the community,” but did not specifically describe those tactics. He also spoke about a renewed focus on getting the “right gun out of the wrong hands.”

The Police Reform Commission recommends suspending the GRU, along with MPD’s other Crime Suppression Teams, unless and until the department can show they do more good than bad. Contee tells LL that he will not suspend the units. Instead, he says, he is refocusing those officers, providing additional training, and changing their tactics.

“I don’t think we need to stop them from working in the community,” he says, noting a recent string of firearm homicides. “And if I’m not mistaken, all nine were committed by guns. To the extent MPD has the responsibility for keeping the city safe, I don’t think we should be taking a break from recovering guns from the hands of people who shouldn’t have guns.”

Stop consent searches.

The Council passed temporary legislation last year that requires officers to explicitly tell people they have a right to refuse a search if officers can’t articulate suspicion of a crime. The goal was to end the practice of stop and frisk.

“We really have to question whether or not someone who is standing there next to an officer who is wearing tactical gear with a gun and taser is truly [giving] consent when the power differential is so great,” says Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU-DC.

The Police Reform Commission goes a step further and recommends eliminating warrantless searches altogether. Contee said at his confirmation hearing that the legislation took MPD “in the right direction.” And when asked specifically whether he believes officers should perform consent searches—which means they cannot articulate suspicion of a crime—during routine traffic stops, the chief said “not in every case,” but “the circumstances could dictate that.”

Make room for other District agencies and give up some responsibilities.

One of the most significant recommendations from the Police Reform Commission is to shift some responsibility away from MPD to other agencies and first responders. An armed officer, for example, is not the right person to respond to someone in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Additionally, at least four separate agencies work to reduce crime in D.C. As the leader of the largest (by people and budget) of those agencies, Contee must proactively engage with the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, the Office of the Attorney General, and the newly created gun violence prevention director, Linda Harllee Harper, who works under the city administrator.

For now, Contee does not support a reduction in the force and believes the 3,600-member department should increase to about 4,000. But he’s willing to reconsider.

“Is there a possibility for us to perhaps do something where we don’t necessarily need 4,000 officers later on down the line? I think that that possibility exists,” he says. “But right now, the things that are on the police officers … have not been removed. Those asks for mental health issues that exist in our community, police officers are still called upon to respond to those things.”

Conduct internal audits.

The Police Reform Commission recommendations and the Bromwich Report exposed MPD’s lack of self-evaluation due to either unwillingness or inability.

In his confirmation hearing, Contee promised to complete an organizational health assessment to analyze MPD’s policies, training, recruiting, supervision, and promotions. He says the review will also focus on extremism, hate speech, and white supremacy.

Patrice Sulton, founder and executive director of the DC Justice Lab, who also served on the Police Reform Commission, specifically wants to see a task audit of how officers’ spend their time.

“He should make every effort to make clear he cares about what they’re doing with their time and money,” Sulton says.

Make sure minors understand their rights.

MPD should amend its policies for interrogating children, the Police Reform Commission recommends. Their specific suggestions say an attorney must be present in order for children to waive their Miranda rights, and officers should use age-appropriate language when informing them of their rights.

In response to questions from At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson during his confirmation hearing, Contee said MPD’s current practices for interrogating juveniles are appropriate.

“I know we go out of the way to make notifications to parents, and we do all of those things,” Contee said. “But I don’t think we should necessarily do anything that would hinder justice being served.”

“The goal is not ‘Let’s try to put this young kid away,’” he added. “The goal is to get to the truth of the matter. A lot of times they’re very violent crimes in nature.”

The commission notes in its report that the success of its proposed reforms to juvenile interrogations “depends on buy-in from MPD officers and their supervisors. Because people won’t adopt what they don’t understand, MPD must provide more training for all officers in adolescent development and adolescent-appropriate policing, from brain science and the dynamics of trauma to deescalation.”

Require MPD officers to live in D.C.

Several councilmembers spoke about the benefit of MPD officers living in D.C. Currently, only about 17 percent of officers are District residents, Contee said.

Gray is planning to re-introduce a bill he’s pitched previously that would give cops a break on their income tax if they lived in D.C. Contee agreed living in the community you’re policing is beneficial, but he does not believe it should be a requirement.

Actually implement and abide by the NEAR Act.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie pressed Contee on multiple provisions in the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act passed in 2016, which aims to use a public health approach to crime. The Bowser administration claims the act is fully implemented. McDuffie says that’s not the case.

Specifically, he questioned Contee about Title 1C, which pairs mental health and behavioral health professionals with officers and, according to McDuffie, is not in effect. He also suggested that the “community policing work groups” called for in the legislation were people who are friendly to MPD. “It sounds like you all were preaching to the choir in terms of the makeup of the group,” McDuffie added. Contee promised to follow up.

Train officers to police each other.

The reform commission recommended, and Contee said he has already started, implementing training that teaches officers how to intervene if another officer is misbehaving.

“In law enforcement we have a duty not to just say to an officer ‘you have a duty to intervene,’” Contee says. “We have a responsibility to teach them how to intervene. Maybe George Floyd would be alive if one of those officers intervened. So we have a responsibility to train that. That’s something I’m pushing forward.”

The commission also recommends annual cultural competency and anti-racism training.

Take care of officers’ mental health.

Police officers see some awful stuff, and it can impact the way they interact with the public. The PRC recommends, and Contee says he will start, providing officers with more mental health supports.

“We have to focus internally on putting the best officer in [the] community,” Contee said. “And when you put the best officer in [the] community, much like we care for [the] community … I have the responsibility of caring for the whole officer.”