Police chief Robert Contee standing masked flanked by two officers in foreground
Reformers say MPD Chief Robert Contee has failed to make many changes to the department, and lawmakers haven't forced the issue. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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It’s official: Robert J. Contee III is D.C.’s police chief. 

The Council unanimously confirmed Contee to head the Metropolitan Police Department on Tuesday, charging a native Washingtonian and three-decade veteran of the force to address a rise in murders and calls for reform. Contee faced no opposition. Even one of the Council’s most vocal critics of the police, Janeese Lewis George of Ward 4, voted in favor of his confirmation, citing Contee’s commitment to making changes to the department in the wake of a national uprising for George Floyd and others killed by officers.   

“I want Chief Contee to be successful, and our communities need him to succeed as chief,” said George. “But that means putting words into action.”

Lawmakers view Contee differently because of his roots. Contee, 48, grew up in Ward 5’s Carver-Langston neighborhood during the height of drug-related violence in the 1980s. Locals called the neighborhood “Little Vietnam” in those days. Contee has been frank about his father being addicted to drugs and police using excessive force when he first joined the department as a 17-year-old cadet in 1989. Contee says his department is not the one he joined 30 years ago.  

“It is not enough to simply rely on his experience and his story, albeit compelling,” said Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. “We need to see him in action and not simply rely on other agencies to figure out alternatives to policing communities of color in particular. But for him to be active in pursuing those alternatives and recognizing the needle he has to thread in maintaining the confidence of the officers throughout the department and also understanding the demands of the community.” 

Contee has a tall order. Gun violence and homicides are rising. Homicides are up 35 percent over last year, when D.C. marked the most murders in 15 years. Carjackings have increased as well, with police arresting more than two dozen juveniles in the first four months of 2021. Against this backdrop, Contee and Mayor Muriel Bowser launched their annual summer crime initiative on Monday. At the press conference debuting the initiative, a local ANC commissioner pleaded to Contee for more support in getting rid of a suspected drug corner. “Whatever we need to do in terms of making sure that this community is safer, those are things we need to do together,” he responded. D.C. experienced an especially violent weekend, with 11 people shot, including 7-year-old Reagan Grimes who was struck in the chest by a bullet while playing Saturday evening. The young girl has already left the hospital and thanked everyone for their prayers

Meanwhile, on Friday, a D.C. police officer fatally shot 36-year-old Terrance Maurice Parker while responding to an alleged domestic dispute. In body-camera footage, Parker appears to take out a gun when officers try to have him leave a bedroom in an apartment in Southwest. MPD said in a press release that Parker “pointed” the gun at a woman involved and officer, but the video does not make that clear. The family of Parker is now calling for an investigation. The events that unfolded over the weekend are a microcosm of what Contee is expected to address in the months and years to come.  

Contee has a long list of changes if he wants to instill confidence in his department, according to various activists and advocates. They are calling on him to give up some responsibilities and make room for other agencies, release disciplinary records, and suspend the notorious Gun Recovery Unit, to name a few. The Police Reform Commission also called for reducing the size of the department. Already, Contee says he’s thinking of changing the way the Gun Recovery Unit operates. “We have to think beyond just getting the gun,” he told the Post. Although, a nearly 30-year veteran of the force tells the Appeal that Contee enabled some troubling practices of the unit.  

While Contee has received plenty of support, including during his confirmation hearing, some have expressed dissatisfaction with the mayor and now the Council’s selection. In her testimony to the Council, April Goggans, a core organizer with Black Lives Matter DC, said she did not believe that Contee could promote reform seeing as he oversaw the Narcotics and Special Investigation Division, a division that has been criticized for its tactics and whose uses of force were all on Black people.     

Jay Brown, whose nephew Jeffrey Price was killed during a police pursuit in 2018, is also disappointed in the confirmation of Contee. “This man sat and lied during the confirmation hearing. He lied under oath. And he had a month or so to correct himself,” Brown says. He is referencing testimony Contee gave during his confirmation hearing. Contee said that an auditor’s report into Price’s death concluded that “officers’ actions were justified.” However, the report’s lead investigator Michael Bromwich says that Contee’s description is inaccurate. To add insult to injury, Brown notes that Contee’s confirmation landed on the three-year anniversary of Price’s death.  

“Contee will be a great police chief to protect MPD officers,” Brown says in reference to alleged low morale among the force. “Black face, bad agenda does not fly in our community.” He adds that investing in “oppressive responses” as opposed to communities that are historically underinvested in will exacerbate existing circumstances. He’d rather see someone like Chanel Dickerson be chief.

Contee has been serving as acting police chief since Jan. 2, after Peter Newsham resigned to head the police department in Prince William County. Just a few days later, Contee had to respond to an unprecedented insurrection at the Capitol. He sent more than 850 officers, earning national praise for his readiness to respond. Contee has big plans, including for himself. According to DCist, he wants to “go down in the history books as one of the people who changed the trajectory of law enforcement” and not just here, but across our country. 

— Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

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