Acting Metropolitan Police Chief Robert J. Contee III answered a wide range of questions from D.C. Council members Thursday during a nearly four-hour public roundtable discussion on confirming him as the department’s permanent leader.
Contee, who has served as interim chief since the Jan. 2 departure of Peter Newsham to lead the Prince William County, Va., police department, spoke to the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety about his goals if confirmed as the full-time chief.
“I want to get the right guns out of the wrong hands,” said Contee, a District native. “I would like to build strong criminal cases for those who break the law. I would also like to address structural racism that influences such areas as housing, education and police relations. I would like to do this by working, listening and talking to the community.”
Contee must first be approved by the committee before his nomination is voted on by the full council. Judiciary Chair Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) hasn’t indicated when the committee vote will occur.
He said partnering with city agencies such as the Department of Behavioral Health is key to fighting crime. He emphasized that police officers should not spend time “getting 15-year-olds out of bed because their grandmothers complain they don’t want to go to school” or dealing with homeless people who refuse to leave the lobby of downtown bank branches, saying other agencies should better handle those matters.
Contee said he will work with Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) on her legislation to weed out police officers with ties to white supremacist groups.
During the roundtable, he didn’t give a specific definition of community policing even as some lawmakers pressed him to do so, saying “it depends on the neighborhood you are talking about.”
Contee said he needed the council to provide him the funds to hire more police officers.
“We should be around 4,000 sworn officers but we are at 3,650 right now,” he said. “Despite the reduction, we as a force are still asked to do the same things.”
Council members Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Elissa Silverman, Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) pressed Contee on his thoughts about a residency requirement for D.C. police officers.
“There are reasons why officers don’t live in D.C. mainly because of the cost of housing,” he said. “But I don’t judge an officer by where he lives, but [rather] how he performs on the job. I don’t think it is necessary for officers to live in the city. You have passionate police officers who don’t live in the city, but they perform their duties well and are engaged in the community and perform outreach.”
He agreed with Cheh that the number of city residents on the force — currently about 17% of the department — could be higher, but stressed the cadet program, which consists of many city youths interested in working for the police department, could help in that regard.