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

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As Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert Contee officially took the helm of the force in 2021, he wanted to get a comprehensive snapshot of the agency to understand where it was successful and how it could improve.

MPD partnered with the Police Executive Research Forum and the Lab @ DC to conduct a cultural assessment of the department over the past two years. The resulting 314-page report was released on MPD’s website this month and first reported by crime blogger Joe Friday.

As Contee makes his way toward the exit (his last day at MPD HQ is tomorrow), this report, along with the Police Reform Commission’s report, acts as a road map for MPD’s next chief.

The cultural assessment covers a lot of ground—professional development, workplace culture, performance management, recruitment and retention, policy, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and feedback from employees and members of the community—and makes recommendations for improvements. One caveat is that the D.C. Police Union would not make their members (officers and sergeants who make up 82 percent of the sworn workforce) available for one-on-one interviews. Only after some negotiation did they agree to answer survey questions.

While PERF identified some positive aspects of MPD, there are plenty of issues. Here is a noncomprehensive summary of the good, the bad, and the ugly contained in the report.

The Good

• The assessment exists! Contee deserves credit for his willingness to ask an outside organization for an assessment of department. But with his departure, it remains unclear whether any change will come of it.

• MPD’s Engaged Workforce Team, also established by Contee, has set up programs and initiatives aimed at improving officers’ well-being, such as subscriptions to the Headspace app, adding five chaplains, providing a discount on a precooked meal delivery service, providing “suicide prevention and heart-focused leadership training,” and hiring an employee health and wellness director.

• MPD provides more opportunities for training hours than most U.S. police departments and prioritizes subjects such as active bystandership, extremism, officer health and wellness, de-escalation, community engagement, and mindfulness and mentoring. But since the pandemic, MPD has been providing training via online videos that officers say is less effective than classroom training.

• MPD hired a chief equity officer to oversee efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Bad

• Black officers and Black non-sworn professional staff, especially Black men, are overrepresented in disciplinary actions (known as adverse actions in MPD parlance) compared with their representations within the department.

• Women, especially Black women, are underrepresented in the upper ranks of the department (captain and above). “Whereas 19% of all command staff (captains, commanders, inspectors, and assistant chiefs) are women, only three of 15 commanders are female (20%), and a mere 14% of captains (6 of 44)—the pipeline to the command ranks—are women,” according to PERF’s analysis.

• Sworn and professional employees say communication from the department’s leadership is quite poor. Here is what some employees said:

“Management typically provides little to no communication to officers about what is occurring in the workplace and ideas they have. Decisions made by individual district management typically are made with no input whatsoever from officers and sergeants.”

If you publicly voice an opposing opinion even when asked for honesty, you are subtly outcasted and blacklisted for future promotions and special assignments. This is one of the major issues in the department that needs to be worked on. Two-way communication is a key from management down to officers, especially to improve employee morale.”

There are days, where it is absolute chaos and there is no communication. It causes unnecessary stress. I wish MPD would have some foresight and plan better.

• Reviews of MPD supervisors were a mixed bag. In closed-ended surveys, respondents said supervisors show respect and is available to answer questions. But in open-ended questions, not so much. One employee said:

“Our supervisors are terrible, do not know their officers at all, and pride themselves in telling us that they are only looking out for themselves and don’t care about us.”

• Patrol assignments are inequitable. Generally, officers with less experience are assigned to patrol in the sixth and seventh districts, which essentially cover wards 7 and 8, where more than 90 percent of the population is Black. PERF recommends reassigning officers so that level of experience is more evenly distributed throughout D.C.

• Focus groups with members of the community say that where a person lives can determine their interactions with MPD officers. “For example, [focus group] participants from majority-Black Wards 7 and 8 said they had historically experienced an aggressive and disrespectful style of over-policing not seen in other wards,” the report says. “Some participants recalled witnessing rudeness in MPD officers’ tone, language, and conduct. They also cited some officers’ lack of empathy and kindness.”

The Ugly

• Employees identified a culture of retaliation against those who speak up against misconduct or discrimination. This finding echoes the five lawsuits currently pending against the department for issues related to race and sex discrimination.

“Some employees told PERF the department had limited accountability and many issues are dismissed or swept under the rug. Some said there was a lack of interest to resolve internal issues and that an employee who voices concerns is perceived as ‘not a team player,’” the report says.

• The Equal Employment Opportunity office is a mess. Alphonso Lee, director of MPD’s EEO office, is the target of a pending lawsuit against the department, and the PERF report finds several issues, starting with basic case tracking.

“MPD provided incomplete data that was poorly presented, difficult to interpret, and internally inconsistent, all of which call its accuracy into question,” the report says.

The data that MPD provided shows that from 2019 to 2022 only 22 out of 472 reported incidents resulted in a formal investigation. More than 95 percent of cases were resolved without a formal investigation. The report notes that since September 2021, 20 current and former MPD employees have sued the department for issues related to discrimination and a toxic workplace, more than half of whom are Black women alleging race and sex discrimination. PERF recommends that MPD commission a top-to-bottom audit of its EEO office.

• Morale is low among officers, in part due to poor leadership. Here is what some employees said:

“As far as our command, it is both disheartening and disgraceful that so many of them have serious misconduct issues and yet they are rarely reprimanded. Command members frequently have inappropriate relationships with subordinates causing infidelity scandals and domestic dramas that are unbecoming [to] representatives of our department.”

“MPD needs to better evaluate the leadership of this department. Morale is always low and the same people who create the toxic environment seem to continue to be promoted and thrive while people under their command suffer.”

“In my experience, virtually none of the command and executive staff have any leadership skills. They are at best competent managers, not leaders of any kind.”

• Focus groups identified issues with competency around the LGBTQIA community. For example, some officers don’t understand the dynamics of a same-sex relationship, the focus group said, and specifically had trouble identifying the primary aggressor in a domestic violence situation. The misunderstanding led to officers making two arrests in a same-sex domestic dispute, where they might only arrest one person in a heterosexual incident.

One member of the LGBTQIA focus group also described the need for better de-escalation skills for some officers. The member said MPD is often called to a youth shelter but walk in “with guns drawn” and arrest youth who are in psychiatric crisis.