Police Chief Robert Contee on Crime Prevention, Security, Police Reform
By May 24, 2021 One Comment 1351•
“A safe community is important in all the work we do and if people do not feel safe in their community, then we still have important work to do,” said Robert J. Contee III, Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, unanimously approved by the District Council on May 4 to be MPD’s 32nd chief.
The Georgetowner interviewed Contee on May 13 to discuss his top priorities, the recent ransomware attack against MPD, the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, his thoughts on police reform and crime in Georgetown.
Since becoming acting and full-time police chief, the 48-year-old Contee has had to address a unique variety of challenges as he guides the D.C. police force during a tumultuous time in the nation’s capital.
Violent crime has been on the rise in the District since the start of the pandemic. The threat of domestic terrorism in the nation’s capital was heightened after Jan. 6, when he was on the job for four days. Contee has had to juggle critical priorities while reassuring the public that the MPD is capable of ensuring safety and security for District residents while also being capable of reform following the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality last year.
A native Washingtonian, Contee grew up in the Carver-Langston neighborhood of northeast D.C., joined the MPD as a young cadet in 1989, rose swiftly through the ranks and was appointed Acting Chief by Mayor Muriel Bowser on Jan. 2, following the retirement of MPD Chief Peter Newsham.
On April 1, the 20-member D.C. Police Reform Commission released its final report entitled “Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety,” calling on the D.C. Council to implement major shifts in the MPD’s budgeting, officer deployment, training and response policies in order to reduce police-involved violence.
Then, in late April, the MPD fell victim to a severe ransomware attack by Babuk, an extortionist firm with possible Russian ties. Soon, the firm began exposing the department’s top-secret electronic information, including officer personnel files, and highly sensitive information about police informants, witnesses, gang members, raw intelligence on threat information, and even the confidential daily briefings for the police chief.
We began by asking Contee how it feels to become the head of the MPD after serving on the force for more than 30 years.
“It’s such an amazing honor for me,” Contee said. “I wish I could say, quite frankly, that it was a dream come true, but I was not a kid back in those days who dreamed I’d become the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department. It is incredibly humbling and I’m just honored to be able to serve the citizens of the District of Columbia and the men and women of the [MPD]… It’s just been an amazing, amazing journey for a kid from northeast D.C.”
Now in his role as chief, Contee has three top priorities for the department.
He wants to focus first and foremost on crime prevention in the District with a particular emphasis on stemming violent and gun-related crimes. The MPD would be “laser focused” on those crimes that “really scare the heck out of people,” Contee said.
Second, he’ll prioritize enhancing the MPD’s community engagement to meet the needs of all the various types of constituencies in the District. “I want our relationships as police officers in communities to be beyond transactional,” he said, “and to be ones where we’re taking time out and engaging residents and citizens where they are in communities. That’s really important to me.”
Third, he will focus on the mental health of MPD officers, especially after the traumatizing events of Jan. 6.
After the ransomware attack against the MPD’s sensitive information, Contee has taken steps to reassure the public that the situation is under control.
“Once the breach was identified, we worked with our technology partners and the FBI to make sure the gap was closed and the vulnerability was taken care of,” Contee said. “I’d like the public to know that as we work with our federal partners, we are as secure as we can possibly be, based upon the vulnerabilities we know are out there.” The attack was “unfortunate,” he said, “but, it could have been a lot worse.”
Following the attack, Contee helped MPD officers secure their data and expressed sympathy for their struggles.
“We have a lot of personnel information for our officers being leaked out there on the dark web,” Contee said. “I mean, they’re already dealing with a lot of adversity in terms of the day-to-day things they have to deal with, but to have your personal information out there, that’s really impactful to our members.”
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to find the people responsible for this, wherever they happen to be in the world and one day bring those individuals to account,” he said.
Following the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, the MPD has continued to coordinate with the U.S. Capitol Police and federal agencies, such as the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, to monitor domestic terror threats in the District.
“Obviously, we know we are always a target [in D.C.], so we never lose sight of that,” Contee said. “But, having that close relationship with our federal partners is essential to ensuring the safety and security of our nation’s capital.”
“I’m proud of the members of the Metropolitan Police Department in terms of how they responded on January the 6th, how we supported [USCP] officers, and how we supported democracy for this country… We will continue to train and make sure they have the best equipment possible, so that in the event we are faced with some type of similar situation we’re prepared for it,” Contee said. The MPD dispatched some 1,200 police officers to assist U.S. Capitol Police on Jan. 6, and hundreds suffered some kind of injury.
With the recent release of the D.C. Police Reform Commission’s final report, Contee is looking forward to finding areas of agreement with the commission. However, he will hold fast to maintaining those practices he believes ensure public safety.
“Our team is combing through [the report], and we’re saying ‘Okay, there are some areas where we can agree, some areas in that report where we’ll try to get to agreement, and, quite frankly, there will be some areas where we’ll just totally disagree,” Contee said.
“You know, I’ve been doing this work for 30 years,” he said. “They’ve done their report, and we’re appreciative of that. But I’m also out here talking to many people in the community, day in and day out. I’m holding listening sessions around our city. And I keep hearing things from the community that are contrary to what the [commission] is asking of the police department.” Contee said he has not heard significant support in the community for ‘defunding the police,’ especially “when we’re having daylight shootings in some areas.”
Having more mental health professionals and crisis counsellors on the force, as the commission’s report suggests, would be a good idea, Contee acknowledged, but without a ready response from police officers, many crisis calls in the community could become dangerous.
Contee cited two recent examples of such dangers, one where mental health specialists summoned police after an individual pulled a knife and another where 911 was called after a man suffering a mental-health breakdown began threatening others on the street and banging on cars.
“I don’t think we want anybody to get hurt, including those responding mental health professionals,” Contee said. “So, we have room for improvement… but I think we have to be very intentional about what we’re doing… we want to make sure the proper infrastructure is in place to do the work so we’re not missing a beat in terms of how these types of calls are responded to.”
Chief Contee is also concerned that the MPD’s current infrastructure and training for handling crisis response calls should not be overlooked.
“We have over 800 police officers trained as crisis intervention officers by the Department of Behavioral Health,” Contee said. “I certainly support that, and we’ll have more of that. But, right now, we’re working with Dr. Bazron [the head of the agency] and her team to really increase our capacity… So, I don’t think you can just say, ‘We’re going to just take this money from over here and we’re going to put it over there and there’s no more need for police officers. I mean, I haven’t really seen that be successful in any big city.”
Following the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests last year, many police departments around the country have faced a reckoning on their abusive practices.
Contee, however, believes the MPD has been a trend-setting department in reform. He stressed that the department has banned chokeholds and limited police pursuits for “years and years.” Nevertheless, in January, Contee called for the MPD to undergo an external agency review of its policies and practices to address questions of racial bias and undergo any “course-corrects” as necessary. “We proactively want to do” such training, he emphasized.
“All departments are not created equal,” Contee said. “Our training is different in probably most instances,” than the other 18,000 or so departments across the county… I firmly believe it starts with the top of the agency. But, it didn’t just start with me. This type of sensitivity towards our community started long before I got here. Just being sensitive to some of the traumas that communities have experienced…, even before I came into law enforcement. Understanding the history of policing and where all that comes from and making sure our police officers are aware of those things” is critical, he said — and added he knows “hundreds of officers who have great relationships in the community.”
Contee’s lifetime of experience as a D.C. resident and longtime veteran of the MPD has helped shape his understanding of the importance of community engagement in policing.
“I grew up in this city as an African American, in a predominantly African American community that saw a lot of violence and we had a certain view of law enforcement in our community and it was based upon what our grandmothers and great-grandmothers said about law enforcement … So, it’s something we certainly have to be sensitive to as we go about doing this work.”
Having grown up with a father who was addicted to and sold drugs in a struggling neighborhood, Contee understands the need to connect people in crisis to the services they need rather than just relying on traditional law enforcement methods.
“When you talk about how we do the work in communities we do, from my perspective — and this is just based on me growing up and dealing with my dad,” he said. “I know you cannot just go in and arrest your way out of situations, because there are drugs and other things … It’s not helpful and in some cases, quite frankly, can be more harmful than helpful… Some of the people we see struggling in the community with the sickness of addiction and that kind of thing, I think we have to be sensitive to that as law enforcement and instead of just putting the cuffs on them in some instances. I think our best outcome would be if we were able to connect [them] to services.”
As an MPD officer, Contee served more than one tour in Ward 2.
“I have very fond memories of Georgetown,” Contee said, finding residents and businesses there “very supportive.” The area is fascinating, he said, with so many differing constituencies — from Georgetown University and the business community to the residents and homeowners. “Sometimes their likes and dislikes and needs don’t always align. So, you have to be very skilled at threading the needle over there properly,” he recalled.
With the spate of recent crimes in Georgetown, Contee fully supports Second District Cmdr. Duncan Bedlion, calling him a “great commander.” He said he speaks with him often and the department is “laser focused on crime” in the area.
When violent crimes occur in Georgetown, Contee said, “They are shocking to the conscience of a lot of people” and often the “worst situation you could possibly imagine.”
However, he said he is “happy that we’ve made a significant number of arrests” and have closed out several recent cases. But, he added, keeping Georgetown residents informed about the MPD’s progress on cases is paramount to providing residents with a feeling of safety and security.