The coming weeks will be a pivotal moment for the future of law enforcement in the District as the city wrestles over that balance. Acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III says his department needs to grow, not shrink, to confront both rising crime and extremism.
Contee, who faces a confirmation hearing later this month from a council that last year cut the police budget, forcing it to shed nearly 200 officers, said he must prepare for “a high probability for violent confrontations that will require a significant police response.”
Last year’s budget cuts brought the District’s police force down to about 3,650 officers, below a threshold officials once considered the bare minimum. Contee said he believes 4,000 officers — a number the mayor aspired to in 2019, when the department counted 3,850 officers — are needed “to get to where we need to be in light of the things we need to contend with now.” Similarly, the Capitol Police wants to increase its force and budget following its failure to properly mobilize ahead of the deadly riot.
But Contee could face pushback from members of the D.C. Council, a liberal group of lawmakers who want police to adapt a public health approach to combating crime that de-emphasizes arrests and redirects resources into programs that attack the root causes of criminal behavior.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, said last year’s budget cuts — opposed at the time by the mayor — and other laws enacted to make police more transparent and accountable, could be just a start.
“That wasn’t a one-year budget, pat yourself on the back and call it a day,” said Allen, who will oversee hearings this month on the state of the police department and Contee’s confirmation. “We’re in the midst of a conversation on the nature of policing.”
Allen credited D.C. police with helping the overwhelmed Capitol Police end the Jan. 6 riot, but he said, “I don’t think we need to be planning our force size based on an armed insurrection. We hope to never see such an event again.”
Contee will face Allen and other lawmakers at an oversight hearing on Thursday, where he is likely to field questions over rising homicides, the insurrection that involved 850 D.C. officers sent to the Capitol and his commitment to making further changes in the force to reflect new ideas born out of the protests that started with the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
That will be followed by the expected release of an independent audit of fatal shootings and deadly use-of-force incidents by D.C. police, and then Contee’s confirmation hearing, where lawmakers will decide whether to make him the permanent chief.
In April, the Police Reform Commission, which has been meeting for months to reshape the department, is expected to deliver its final report, which could include as many as 80 recommendations to reduce the footprint of D.C. police on neighborhoods it says are over-policed.
The commission is weighing recommendations that include pulling D.C. police from schools, restricting searches of people and vehicles during stops, requiring more transparency in police discipline and pausing the work of specialized squads targeting guns and drugs to reassess their actions. The group also will probably recommend sending counselors instead of police to some calls involving people in distress, domestic violence and drug use.
Similar efforts are underway in Virginia and Maryland, where the Senate approved scrapping a bill of rights law that critics maintain long protected police during secretive disciplinary processes. In the District, advocates are emphasizing reducing the role of police.
“The overreaching theme is the need to build up other mechanisms from the government and the community to address problems that people face, ranging from gun violence to mental health challenges to wanting to learn in a safe environment,” said Christy Lopez, the commission’s co-chair and director of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown Law.
“It’s become clear of how much we’ve asked the police to do,” said Lopez, who led the Justice Department investigations of police conduct in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. “We have very much focused on suggested reforms to the D.C. police itself, but there is quite a lot of emphasis on building up some of the other structures in and out of government.”
Lopez said Jan. 6 should not affect efforts to change policing; she argued that failures that day were caused not by restrictive rules governing behavior and tactics, but by a lack of leadership, training and an “unconscious bias” that resulted in a failure to prepare as urgently for “White terrorists” who tried to overturn an election President Donald Trump had lost, as for “Black protesters” who led demonstrations over police conduct last summer.
Contee said he is open to changes, even surrendering some of the current police duties, such as responding to mental health crises, as long as there are programs established to take over those services.
“As of right now, who would the community call to get that service?” he said. “Right now, it’s 911.”
The acting chief said that following Jan. 6, federal police forces will be examining their own security, and that inward focus could leave the District more vulnerable.
“As they harden targets in the federal enclave, other buildings in the city under MPD jurisdiction may become more likely targets,” he said at a recent congressional hearing.
Contee said he wants to hold his own community meetings to hear firsthand from residents, who he says lobby him for more police in their neighborhoods.
“The voices of the community have to weigh in to this conversation,” he said. “What does the community want to see? This is the community’s police department, not the Police Reform Commission’s police department.”
In one brainstorming session, reform commission members discussed guiding principles to serve as a backbone of their upcoming report.
Noting a “collective sense of distrust” in law enforcement, members said one goal is “reducing power of police” and to train officers to think of themselves as guardians of a community, rather than warriors.
“The overreliance on policing stems from a false narrative that the police are the only or are the primary way to achieve public safety,” members wrote down as one principle. That “perpetuates the false narrative that Black people and other marginalized groups are innately bad or criminal, instead of focusing instead on social failures to create peace and opportunities for people to thrive.”
At one recent meeting, reform commission member Robert S. Bennett, a former federal prosecutor and prominent defense attorney, said that some recommendations might run contrary to existing laws and that he is “just troubled about intruding too much on the day-to-day operations of the police.”
Naïké Savain, a supervising attorney at the Children’s Law Center, answered that she thought the goal “was to actually change the day-to-day operations of the Metropolitan Police Department, and how police impact our community.”