The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

District’s new police chief is rethinking unit focused on gun seizures

D.C. acting police chief Robert J. Contee III speaks at a news conference in December.
D.C. acting police chief Robert J. Contee III speaks at a news conference in December. (Robb Hill/for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The District’s acting police chief is considering reshaping a unit tasked with pulling hundreds of guns off city streets each year, saying the strategy creates tension with communities and detracts from a sharper focus on finding shooters.

What the shift would look like is being discussed throughout the department, and it comes as officials grapple with competing demands to reimagine policing by emphasizing a public health approach over arrests, even as gun violence escalates.

Changing how the Gun Recovery Unit operates could address the concerns of critics who complain that the aggressive tactics of specialized plainclothes anti-crime squads are a primary source of mistrust between police and residents.

The deliberations also come ahead of a pivotal time for acting police chief Robert J. Contee III, who appeared before the D.C. Council on Thursday for the department’s oversight review and will face a confirmation hearing later this month.

Contee said in an interview that he wants to focus less on seizing as many firearms as possible and instead intensify efforts to identify and arrest people who use guns for violence or threats.

“We have to think beyond just getting the gun,” he said. “Certainly we want to get guns off the street. But we got to get the right guns out of the wrong hands.”

The chief said that the examination of gun seizures is just a start and that the department will take a broader look across the department and “challenge our thinking on the way we do business.”

Impact of Capitol riot looms over efforts to overhaul policing in the District

On Tuesday, Cmdr. John Haines, who heads the department’s Narcotics and Special Investigations Division, sent a memo to members of the Gun Recovery Unit telling them that they “must be at the forefront of change.”

The internal memo, obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed by a department spokesman as authentic, urged those officers to rethink how they do their jobs.

“The tactics of the past 10-20 years are no longer what we should be doing as a department or a city,” Haines wrote. “No longer are we focused on getting guns. The focus will be on those that pull the trigger and directly or indirectly harm others.”

Haines stressed that “no idea is too small or too radical. If it means a reimagining of the unit, a total reorganization, or simply sitting down and having real discussions on how to balance societies’ needs to our mission, I want to hear it. Think outside the box.”

Former D.C. police chief Peter Newsham made seizing illegal firearms the department’s top priority and the heart of his plan to reduce violence. Arrests and confiscated guns are highlighted in weekly news releases from the department, and posted on its website and tweeted, often with photos of the weapons.

But despite patrol officers and members of the gun team taking about 2,000 firearms off D.C. streets each year, gun violence and homicides have risen, with 2020 ending with the most killings since 2004.

The Gun Recovery Unit and similar groups in other police agencies nationwide are among their departments’ elite groups and are largely given wide latitude to scour cities for illegal firearms in what is considered one of the most dangerous jobs on the force.

It is also one that can cause the most tension, and lead to the most trouble. In Baltimore, the police department’s Gun Trace Task Force was disbanded after it became embroiled in a broad corruption scandal involving members stealing money and drugs, falsely arresting people, and planting evidence. Several officers went to prison, including the sergeant who led the squad, who was sentenced to 25 years behind bars.

Departure of police chief gives District a chance to decide what kind of leader it wants

Defense lawyers in the District often argue that members of the Gun Recovery Unit and other officers seize weapons through legally questionable tactics or searches. Officers are trained, for example, to recognize the unusual gait of a person carrying a gun, or a telltale bulge in pants or a jacket pocket, indicators used as probable cause to stop and search someone for a firearm.

Some residents complain that communities of color are targeted and that many innocent people are stopped and searched.

“The GRU’s mission has long been out of step with the communities they purport to serve,” Laura E. Hankins, general counsel for the D.C. Public Defender Service, said in a statement, adding that the memo from the narcotics division commander is a tacit admission of this.

Joseph Yarbough, staff attorney with the public defender’s office, added in the statement that police “view recovering guns as a numbers game” in which officers treat statistics like a scoreboard and said that their tactics “routinely result in cases being dismissed for constitutional violations or acquittals because jurors do not find the officers credible.”

The Police Reform Commission, a group established by the D.C. Council to reimagine policing following the protests that started after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May, is set to release its final report in April. It is expected to recommend pausing the gun task force and crime suppression teams until their tactics and effectiveness can be examined.

When police — often four at a time in the Gun Recovery Unit — leap from unmarked cars to confront someone suspected of carrying a gun, it often leads to complaints of a “jump-out,” a practice of random stops that D.C. police insist has long been retired as a tactic, in favor of more-targeted stops based on evidence, tips and observations.

Regardless, in Wards 7 and 8, communities east of the Anacostia River where violent crime is most acute, many residents, council members and activists say that neighborhoods there are over-policed, and that Black people fear being unfairly targeted.

On Tuesday night, Contee fielded questions on a panel broadcast live on social media exploring what kind of policing D.C. residents want. It was the first of several meetings he plans to hold across the city to discuss what he said is a crucial question for the future: “What are those things police should and shouldn’t be doing?”

Jay Brown, a lifelong resident of Ward 7 who runs a nonprofit organization called Community Shoulders, which acts as a liaison between people and support groups, answered without hesitation.

D.C. police “should not be violating our citizens’ constitutional rights with the stop-and-frisk program that you currently have running,” he told the police chief. “The jump-out situation that you have in place now is hindering any hopes of developing a positive relationship in our community.”

Killings in District reach 16-year high

Contee responded by saying that the police department does not have a stop-and-frisk program or jump-out squads, although he noted that he understands the perception that they exist.

But, the chief said, “if the tactics we deploy alienate the community, then we need to look at those tactics. . . . We both want the same thing; we both want safe communities.” He said residents “don’t want to be harassed by police who in their minds are doing their jobs.”

In Wednesday’s interview, Contee said he did not want to suggest that the work of the Gun Recovery Unit is problematic. He said members of the unit do not have a large number of sustained complaints for improper ­searches.

He also noted that the effectiveness of the unit can be difficult to measure and that prosecutors don’t move forward on some cases for a wide variety of reasons that include issues out of an officer’s control, such as reluctant witnesses.

But he said he wants to focus on an approach that is most effective at targeting violence and to align the values of his department with the community.

“At the end of the day, I want to make sure we’re moving the best cases forward,” Contee said. “I want to take as many illegal guns off the street as we can. But I want them to be quality cases.”

The chief said that he is not asserting that officers “are out there stopping as many people as they can to get whatever guns they need.” But, he said, he also doesn’t “want that to be the perception of what is happening.”

Battle for the West Terrace: Capitol riot charges reveal details of police attacks on Jan. 6

Congress to consider bill requiring police to report their misconduct settlements

Prince George’s report dissects, denies allegations of systemic racism in discrimination lawsuit filed by Black, Hispanic officers