The 48-year-old grew up in Northeast Washington’s Carver-Langston neighborhood, and he rose from the lowliest rank of cadet to lead the department of 3,600 officers through a period of profound change and rising gun violence. He has talked of seeing police using force and of a father who sold and was addicted to drugs.
Contee takes over as homicides in the District are rising for the fourth straight year and amid a new era of policing fueled by outrage over the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a White police officer in Minneapolis last May. The D.C. police force is still reeling from injuries and psychological pain stemming from the Capitol riot, and losing officers through resignations and retirements.
His greatest challenge could be confronting concerns that police aren’t doing enough to combat crime and violence while simultaneously trying to assuage council members and activists pushing for a smaller police footprint and a less confrontational style of policing. He will also have to work with a labor union that accuses lawmakers of bowing to activists at the expense of public safety.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said he supports Contee in large part because of his personal story. But he asked, “I wonder how he’s going to thread the needle of being a leader on the force and make the reforms that are necessary?”
On Monday, at an announcement to kick off a summer crime-prevention initiative, Contee got an earful from Sondra Phillips-Gilbert, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who publicly lambasted him for the police failing to eradicate a suspected drug corner along Benning Road, dividing Kingman Park and Carver-Langston.
“I can’t get the support I need, and my community is afraid,” she said of the corner, two blocks from the Rosedale Recreation Center, where the announcement was made. She criticized a recommendation by police to put a public bathroom at the corner without having consulted her.
“We don’t need to put a bathroom there to accommodate the poison that is being sold to the community,” Phillips-Gilbert said in front of the crowd of police, residents and media. “What we need is support to give the public a chance to live without the threat of being shot.”
Contee, pointing a finger for emphasis, nodded as she spoke and responded with his signature emphasis on community-police relations as the solution to her ills.
“Whatever we need to do in terms of making sure that this community is safer, those are things we need to do together,” he said.
The exchange came at the same recreation center where Contee had played while growing up across the street, a neighborhood that was then and is now troubled by crime and drugs, evidenced by its inclusion as one of the six communities in need of extra attention as part of Contee’s summer anti-crime initiative.
And once again on Monday, standing on a football field for the news conference, the chief turned to his roots in the District, lifting the soles of his shoes from the turf, “acknowledging what’s under my feet.”
It was his way of promoting his lifelong residency that he is now using to gain trust in neighborhoods where police are sometimes shunned.
“He ran through the alleys and the streets and he knows the bumps in the road,” said Willie Smith, who knew Contee growing up in the neighborhood and now coaches basketball and football at the community center.
“It’s that he grew up in the trenches, and I believe in promoting from within,” said Smith, who said trust between police and residents can only be built on a shared understanding of what it means to have complicated childhoods in the District.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, described Contee as opened-minded and dedicated. But he also said the department has a history of resisting oversight.
“They just need to be able to look internally,” Allen said. “This is the chief’s charge.”
At a council breakfast meeting before Tuesday’s vote, council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) said she expects Contee to “work with the council toward reimagining public safety,” including shifting money away from the police department.
“We can’t police and incarcerate our way out of gun violence,” George said, adding that “curbing abusive policing must be a top priority.”
Contee, who will earn $270,000 a year, has signaled an openness to change, vowing to revamp how the gun squad operates to ease concerns about illegal stops and searches, and embarking on ward-by-ward listening sessions to hear from residents.
He wants to tailor crime-fighting strategies to the needs of different neighborhoods and says police enforcement should be “laser-focused” on violent criminals rather than stops that can appear random and discriminatory. Under Contee, officers get credit for building solid criminal cases instead of seizing as many firearms as they can.
The chief said he supports changing the department to reflect a shift in police culture being contemplated in cities across the country, including moving some responsibilities to other agencies. But he also opposes cutting the budget and the number of officers, and he warns that moving too fast on some issues could be counterproductive if other agencies and programs aren’t ready to fill the void.
Black Lives Matter DC has tweeted criticism of Contee and his responses to some issues, such as mass arrests of demonstrators over the summer on Swann Street NW, the subject of intense criticism. April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DC, has said the focus should be on institutional change rather than any one particular police chief.
Last week the group, responding to news that a D.C. police officer fatally shot a man wielding a firearm during a domestic dispute, tweeted: “The gears of the state’s killing machine never stop. This is about policing no matter who the officers are or who the police chief is.”
Pressure also is coming from the Police Reform Commission, a group established by the council that issued a report recommending sweeping changes in police tactics and reductions in budget and staffing, with the goal to de-emphasize arrests and interactions with law enforcement. Council members are meeting with police on the proposals, which will be discussed at a hearing May 20.
Contee is being pressed on the other side by Greggory Pemberton, who chairs the D.C. Police Union, which on Monday urged the council to repeal part of emergency legislation enacted last year that puts new curbs on policing, makes public the names of officers who use force and strips the labor group of all say in the disciplinary process.
Pemberton said the union ranks — officers, detectives and sergeants — have struggled with low morale, noting that more than 300 sworn members have left the department since June 2020, when months of demonstrations over police conduct began. Nearly half the departures were resignations, he said, a number confirmed by the department.
“This means nearly 150 members have just turned in their badge and walked away,” Pemberton said in a statement, blaming the legislation in part. “They feel they do not have the support of elected leadership and believe they have been demonized by the council.”
The union chairman attributed the increase in homicides to the new laws, saying parts need to be removed “if citizens expect to have a functioning police department and safety in their neighborhoods.”
At Monday’s news conference, Contee acknowledged the departures of officers and conceded, “It is a problem.”
After addressing reporters and community members, Contee spoke to a group of senior officers about the plan for the summer, reminding them, “This is not an arrest-focused initiative. We want to make the community safer.”