Bowser names Contee new DC police chief

Newly named D.C. police Chief Robert Contee speaks at a news conference Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. (Courtesy D.C. Mayor’s Office)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser named police veteran Robert Contee as the District’s new police chief Tuesday.

She called it a “full circle” for Contee, a Washington native who joined the department as a cadet in 1989. “He was born and raised here,” the mayor said.

“He is confident that MPD can lead the way and serve as a blueprint for a modern-day police department, a department that can be used in new and better ways to be reduced violent crime and continue to engage the community,” Bowser said.

“When we spoke last week, he told me that the honor for him was to give back to the city that raised him. And that becoming chief is a testament to what can happen when you give kids a fair shot,” she added.

Contee: ‘Listen intently and learn from our communities’

Contee said he stands as a “proud son of the nation’s capital” during an impassioned introduction Tuesday.

“I was raised on 21st Street Northeast,” Contee said. “To really understand the man before you, you must appreciate the boy from whence he came. So, today, instead of highlighting the man, I’m going to give you a glimpse into the life of the boy before the man. Back then, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, life was not easy in my neighborhood.”

“Many of the challenges and traumas experienced by so many young people today were very real and present in my community, but also in my home,” he said.

Contee described growing up with shootings, murders, crime, drug dealing, poverty, joblessness hopelessness, domestic violence, and educational and health disparities.

He said his father, who was 17 when Contee was born, was not only a drug dealer, but “sick with addiction.”

“I knew the smell of marijuana as a young kid. I remember the smell of PCP packaged in aluminum foil for sale and stored in a mayonnaise jar, in the freezer, in our home. I remember seeing powder cocaine stashed in my father’s favorite hiding places, as well as syringes he used to put poison into his into his veins,” Contee said.

He said his father, now clean, had been addicted to crack.

Contee said it was his mother, who volunteered at his school as a teacher’s aide to ensure she kept tabs on him and his siblings, who fought to care for her kids.

“She was my first example of a strong Black woman,” Contee said. “She taught me about perseverance and having an attitude of gratitude. She taught me how to be humble and to work hard.”

“As a result, I live by the model. Excellence is transferable. In all that I do, I aim to do it in the spirit of excellence in my house; my mom did not tolerate halfway doing anything. That means you keep trying until you get it right.”

Contee said his parents are still his heroes.

“As imperfect as they are, when I was growing up, family was all I had. I learned so many life lessons from them. The most important lesson I learned was that the only thing to stop me from doing great things were the limitations I set in my own mind,” he said, and added that both of his parents had been born with cerebral palsy.

“Despite those disabilities, they raised three healthy children. They clothed us, they fed us, but most importantly, they loved us.”

Contee said his father has now been drug-free for almost 11 years.

He promised to be “laser-focused on crime in our communities.”

“I know there are many families in our communities that seek justice for loved ones that had been victims of violence. And, I assure you, the Metropolitan Police Department will be relentless in our pursuit of criminals that make communities unsafe,” Contee said.

He also promised to “listen intently and learn from our communities,” and to ensure policing strategies are “inclusive and aligned with the values of communities we serve.”

“Communication, collaboration, cooperation and participation by all in the ecosystem of community will be the tenets of our crime-fighting strategy,” Contee said.

“There’s room at the table for anyone and everyone who is committed to ensuring focused, balanced and fair policing in our nation’s capital,” he added. “It’s time to go to work. Let’s go.”

Reactions

Outgoing D.C. police Chief Peter Newsham said he “could not be more proud” of Contee and wished him the best. Newsham has been named police chief in Prince William County, Virginia.

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine told WTOP he was “very pleased” by Contee’s appointment, and called the incoming chief a “consummate professional.”

“He’s a native Washingtonian who understands the District of Columbia, and I think he really has a firm grasp of the community. And he trusts the community. And I think that community trusts him,” Racine said.

He added that it would have been preferable to conduct a nationwide search for a new police chief, and to have gotten community input on the selection.

“Why? Really, for one reason, nationally and locally, there is a massive discussion going on around crime and justice, fairness and policing,” Racine said, adding that community concerns about over-policing need to be heard.

“That, I think, would have been an informative process,” Racine said. “But, having said that, I can tell you that I believe that Chief Contee is the chief who embraces data and evidence. There’ll be a chief who welcomes the opportunity to innovate, in particular, around reducing unnecessary incarceration while keeping the public safe.”

D.C. Police Union Chairman Gregg Pemberton said Contee “is a really well respected member of the police department.”

“He’s got a 31-year career, very distinguished individual, very well respected amongst the rank and file. And, frankly, of all the possible candidates from within the department, he’s, by and large, a favorite to the membership,” Pemberton said.

He added that Contee has an excellent relationship with other officers.

“And he’s really known for being fair, and having excellent leadership skills, and I think that the membership has faith that he’s going to be able to run this police department in a very balanced and effective way,” Pemberton said.

“He cares about police work, he cares about the city. And I think that, frankly, he’s going to do a phenomenal job, and I look forward to working with him on both the police front and the union front,” he added.

Contee’s appointment is pending approval by the D.C. Council.

Community considerations

In a statement, D.C. Council member Charles Allen, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, said the committee will announce the confirmation process in the new year.

“Given the important moment we are in as a community and a nation, and the central role the Chief of the Department will play in the future of public safety and policing, the public will play an important role and the Committee will create several ways for input to be heard,” the statement reads.

“I will be looking to hear from the nominee not just about how the Department has changed during his tenure, but about where he wants to take the Department in the future — and how his approach to leadership will address the challenges in public safety and policing that we face as a city. This moment demands someone prepared to tackle systemic racism in the District and within policing culture, repair relationships in the communities served by MPD, advance a public health approach to eliminating violence, and use the law and Constitution to demonstrate empathy, humility, innovation and vision.”

Allen has laid out his expectations for the next police chief, saying it is a “critical moment for policing, public safety and justice across the country” and the District.

“The nation is changing, and law enforcement in the District — and what we expect from a chief of police — must evolve, as well,” Allen said.

In July, at a “Re-imagining Police in the District of Columbia” discussion, Contee said creating a connection between police and the communities they serve is a crucial step to bringing about change.

“Those communities that are some of our most challenged areas, those voices sometimes, in my opinion, are not heard,” Contee said then.

“I just want to see something that’s focused, that’s fair, that’s balanced across the board,” Contee added, stressing the need for cops to come from the communities they serve through programs such as the police cadet program.

Contee is stepping into the role amid continued unrest about police policies, as well as a rise in homicide rates in D.C., which is up 21% in 2020 from 2019.

Bowser also said that the director of D.C.’s 911 call center, Office of Unified Communications Director Karima Holmes, was “moving on.”

Holmes is the third person on Bowser’s public safety team to leave in recent months.

The call center has been under fire over D.C. Fire and EMS crews being dispatched to wrong or nonexistent addresses.

WTOP’s Ken Duffy, Colleen Kelleher, Dan Friedell and Melissa Howell contributed to this story.

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