D.C. police Chief Robert Contee
Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert Contee suddenly announced his retirement this week, ending a 33-year career with the department, the last two and a half as top cop. Later this year, he will take a job as assistant director at the FBI’s Office of Partner Engagement, where he will work with law enforcement agencies across the country, according to a video message MPD published Wednesday evening. His last day at MPD is June 3.

Contee told reporters Thursday that he only decided to take the FBI job on Monday and informed Mayor Muriel Bowser that day, though he added that the feds approached him about the gig earlier this year. The announcement came as a surprise to at least some lawmakers—several Wilson Building staffers who spoke with City Paper said neither Contee nor Bowser gave them any advance notice before news of Contee’s departure circulated late Wednesday afternoon. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said in a statement Wednesday that he was “shocked” to see the news. “I am hopeful that the Mayor will take this opportunity to find a leader who is willing to try new approaches to law enforcement and new strategies to fight violent crime,” he said.

Contee grew up in Northeast D.C. and started his career with MPD as a cadet at age 17. He he rose through the ranks until Mayor Muriel Bowser nominated him as chief in December 2020.

“I’ve been wearing these hot pants for a long time,” Contee said Thursday, grabbing the leg of his dress blues. “Now it’s time for me to transition over to another part of my life.”

Bowser has not yet named a replacement, but has so far opted to promote from within the department, as she did with Contee’s predecessor, Peter Newsham. Contee said Thursday that he expects his deputies are “likely candidates” for the job, though Bowser pledged to lead an “expedited nationwide search” and called the post “very attractive for law enforcement professionals all over the country.”

The chief is the latest leader of a local public safety agency to depart in recent years; turnover in leadership positions has often followed subpar performances or scandals. Although Contee is not being forced out, he leaves behind a complicated legacy.

As a native Washingtonian who spent his entire career with MPD, Contee came across as a genuine and passionate leader and was respected among councilmembers and many, though not all, community leaders. Contee led the department’s response to the January 6 insurrection after only four days on the job (though his top intelligence lieutenant is currently suspended and remains under threat of criminal charges for alleged improper communication with the Proud Boys). Hundreds of his officers provided crucial support for an overwhelmed U.S. Capitol Police force that day.

Although overall crime decreased under Contee’s watch from 2021 to 2022, he ultimately failed to get control of the rise in homicides, which have been steadily increasing since Bowser took office and reached a total of 226 in 2020, the first time the grim figure broke 200 in nearly 20 years. Contee is also leaving in the middle of the summer, when crime historically spikes, and homicides in 2023 are 16 percent higher than this same time last year.

“By making sure that our officers are out in communities, engaging members of the community, doing things that are impactful to community members, I think that we will continue to see reductions in crime,” Contee said Thursday.

During his relatively short tenure, Contee has consistently clashed with the D.C. Council over accountability and transparency reforms, the size of the department, and its budget.

Contee dismissed any notion that his decision to leave had anything to do with those battles, or the recent congressional interference in the District’s crime policies, saying, “I don’t leave with bitter feelings toward anyone or any entity in our city.”

“You’re going to have to do more than that to try and run me out of here,” he added.

He gets points from D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson for implementing or making progress on most of her office’s recommendations around use of force and investigations into use of force. In January, the department started publishing brief summaries of cases that come before the Use of Force Review Board as part of its compliance with one of Patterson’s recommendations.

Patterson says she would prefer to see more comprehensive reports, but says “progress in transparency was clearly made in the two years he served.” She notes that she would have preferred Contee fulfill his entire four-year contract before joining the FBI. “I think they’ve done a decent job in trying to upgrade their use of force policies, and transparency is still a work in progress,” she says.

Contee rejected one of the Police Reform Commission’s top recommendations, eliminating the controversial gun recovery unit, whose officers use aggressive tactics such as “jump outs” that have been the source of police abuse in low-income communities of color for years. In a recent deposition in a whistleblower lawsuit first reported by WUSA9, Contee acknowledged that a former sergeant alerted him to that fact that officers were still using the illegal tactic while he was assistant chief, but he did not order an investigation.

“I think the public needs to understand they are using these unconstitutional tactics, and none of them result in cases,” says Patrice Sulton, executive director of the DC Justice Lab, a criminal justice policy organization. “To pretend someone isn’t able to just get another gun from Virginia is ridiculous.”

She highlights the widening gap between gun arrests by MPD officers and actual charges that prosecutors bring into court. Prosecutors declined to bring charges in 67 percent of arrests D.C. officers made in fiscal year 2022, a trend that’s driven by drug and gun arrests, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office

“That’s part of his legacy,” Sulton says. “He seemed to believe you could round up all the guns and the problem would go away. Or at least that’s what he told the public and I don’t know what’s worse, to be that uneducated or to be that dishonest about it.”

Jay Brown, a community activist whose nephew was killed in an encounter with police in 2018, echoes some of Sulton’s sentiments. He says he seen “runners” (essentially jump outs by another name) as recently as this week. Brown appreciates that Contee was responsive when he would raise issues to him, but he believes Contee didn’t do enough to push back against the toxic parts of the department’s internal culture.

Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former MPD reserve officer, applauds Contee for his willingness to listen to criticism. Brooks patrolled as a reserve officer from 2016 to 2021 and ultimately wrote a book, Tangled Up In Blue, about the experience. During her time with the department, she helped establish the Policing for Tomorrow Fellowship program, in which MPD officers and personnel attend workshops led by law professors about topics such as use of force, institutional racism, mass incarceration, and the impact of trauma and policing.

“It’s a risky program,” Brooks says. “Cops usually hate professors. We’re a bunch of elitist punks, and we’re bringing police into contact with scholars and teaching them to ask hard questions. Not every chief wants their young officers to ask hard questions.”

In her view, the fact that Contee bought into the program indicates his recognition that change in the department needs to happen from the top down and from the bottom up.

“The new chief won’t get anywhere if they don’t have people at every level who are willing to buy into their vision. You want to have junior officers saying, ‘Yes, I’m buying into this.’ Otherwise those messages from leadership die on the vine,” Brooks says. “It’s about really turning the organization into a learning organization, and rewarding people for asking questions rather than shutting them down … Every department is having trouble with recruiting, but if idealistic people are told to shut up and just say, ‘yes sir,’ they’re going to leave.”

Evan Douglas, a native Washingtonian and former MPD officer, participated in the Policing for Tomorrow fellowship. He echoes Brooks’ sentiments about Contee’s willingness to listen and remembers the chief for his passion for the community.

But there are some areas where Douglas, who also worked as a fellow for the D.C. Justice Lab, believes Contee didn’t do enough to push policing in D.C. in a more progressive direction. He points to the chief’s opposition to the revised criminal code, which Congress and President Joe Biden ultimately rejected. Douglas says the rhetoric incorrectly reduced the revisions to a “soft on crime” bill. “But it was really about changing the laws in D.C. to make them more equitable,” he says.

For Douglas, who now works for NYU’s Policing Project, the next police chief should be open to alternative approaches to policing. “Outdated practices (like jump outs) that have gone on in this city haven’t gotten the job done in solving crime or preventing it,” he says. “But like Chief Contee, the new chief should have an ear to the community.”

Sulton, for her part, wants to see the new chief who considers the long-term effects of the tactics that officers use and who looks beyond short-term crime statistics. “Most importantly, the person who takes that job needs to understand there is such a thing as too much punishment and causing more crime through the wrong kind of policing,” she says. 

Sulton laments that Newsham and Contee flew through the confirmation process, as if it were a foregone conclusion that the Council would rubber stamp Bowser’s preferred pick. “I think that’s because we don’t have a robust community input mechanism that precedes her anointing someone.” She says this time around, she hopes Bowser considers a woman for the top job.

Retired Assistant Chief Chanel Dickerson is standing between MPD's headquarters and the Superior Court campus, arms folded.
Chanel Dickerson, retired assistant police chief Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Chanel Dickerson just retired as an assistant chief last year and is the highest ranking plaintiff in a lawsuit that alleges retaliation against Black women in the department.

“Chief Contee and I started as cadets and made great strides in an organization that gave us our fair shot,” Dickerson says in a text. “I applaud his more than three decades of service and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

If offered the job, Dickerson says she would consider it.