In just a matter of minutes, Robert Contee became acting chief of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) during a Jan. 2 swearing-in ceremony.
The action came less than two weeks after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) revealed Contee as her choice for the police department’s top spot, touting the District native’s experiences as a youth and police officer as vital in curbing violent crime.
Among some residents, however, there remains some skepticism about Contee’s ability to, not only reduce crime, but embrace the deep-seated institutional changes that local grassroots organizers coalesced around in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death last year.
“Acting Chief Contee has been with MPD for 31 years. Why would I expect him to act any differently?” Black Lives Matter DC (BLM DC) Core Organizer Anthony Lorenzo Green told The Informer.
In its public statement released the day following Bowser’s announcement, BLM DC condemned Bowser for ignoring the D.C. Police Reform Commission’s recommendation for an open, transparent police-selection process.
BLM DC organizers also criticized Contee’s stewardship of the Investigative Services Bureau, under which the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division has been alleged to employ police jump outs and stop-and-frisk tactics much like what spurred protests in the Deanwood community nearly three years ago.
“I wouldn’t expect Contee to say that what he describes as community policing is creating more trauma, violent incidents, and lives lost on the streets,” Green continued. “His entire record [involves] using police to lock up as many people as possible to keep the streets safer, but the streets aren’t safe and haven’t been for 31 years.”
On Saturday, hours before officially becoming acting police chief, Contee arrived on the scene of the police-involved shooting along Georgia Avenue in Northwest. Officers recovered a handgun at the scene. Contee later reaffirmed his commitment to tackling gun violence, and reducing the volume of illegal guns on the streets.
With 167 homicides at the end of 2020, the District’s murder rate reached levels not seen since 2008. The mayhem carried on into the new year when, on Sunday morning, MPD officers found a 22-year-old woman on Wahler Place in Southeast suffering from gunshot wounds and surrounded by dozens of shell casings. She would later succumb to her injuries under circumstances that have yet to be determined.
Contee’s predecessor Peter Newsham often clashed with the D.C. Council about the best means of curbing violent crime, and the degree to which police activity is scrutinized.
In years past, while the council embraced holistic means of crime prevention, such as the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, Newsham often touted the need for gun recovery and to focus on repeat offenders. Had he stayed on the force, Newsham would’ve been up for review this year under legislation passed by the council amid last summer’s racial justice protests.
During those protests, MPD faced criticism for officers’ alleged mistreatment of protesters. Meanwhile, Newsham and Bowser continued to combat any notion that MPD should be defunded, even after the police-involved shooting death of 18-year-old Deon Kay in Congress Heights and a police chase and fatal shooting by officers in Northwest of 20-year-old Karon Hylton-Brown.
Given these circumstances, longtime Ward 8 community member and anti-crime stalwart Sandra Seegars recommended that Contee, if approved by the D.C. Council, should be able to carry out his job without any interference from who she described as overzealous legislators.
“None of the council members have been on the police force. They don’t know the job; they just know what they see,” said Seegars, founding member of Concerned Residents against Violence, or CRAV.
“Anyone could sit back, nitpick and play Monday morning quarterback,” she added. “Police have a dangerous job and every council member who’s complaining about the police should spend a weekend in Congress Park, Woodland or Fourth Street. Let’s see what they say after that.”
The Informer unsuccessfully attempted to acquire details about the police chief confirmation process from D.C. Council member Charles Allen, chairperson of the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.
Since joining MPD as a cadet in 1989, Contee rose through the ranks of the department, serving various roles within the First, Second, and Sixth District. He most recently acted as assistant chief of the Investigative Services Bureau.
Hailing from Carver Terrace in Northeast, Contee was no stranger to the societal ills that plagued District residents during the 1980s and 1990s.
On the morning of Dec. 22, a fully uniformed Contee, flanked by Bowser and other city officials, highlighted that point as he revealed intimate details of his upbringing, and what he hoped to accomplish.
“We will be laser-focused on crime in our communities,” Contee said. “I know the feeling of being a survivor of violent crime. My father was stabbed on Minnesota Avenue [and] we never caught the person. MPD will be relentless in our pursuit of suspects. I will listen intently in our communities and stakeholders.”