At a news conference, Bowser (D) said she is confident that Contee, assistant chief of the Investigative Services Bureau, will “lead the way and serve as a blueprint for a modern-day police department” and find “new and better ways to reduce violent crime while continuing to engage the community.”
The 48-year-old Contee grew up in Northeast Washington’s Carver-Langston neighborhood, a wedge-shaped community along Benning Road battered by violence during the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s. He has talked about witnessing officers using force.
That perspective has given him added credibility at a time when the city is working to overhaul policing. He will immediately face challenges that include a spike in killings, which have reached a 15-year high, coupled with competing demands from lawmakers and social justice activists to shift funds away from police and into alternative programs that take a public health approach to fighting crime.
On Tuesday, Contee cast himself as a leader who will support his officers but also is open to change. He highlighted his personal narrative of growing up in an impoverished community riddled with crime and drugs, and watching his father — now 11 years sober — struggle with addiction and as the victim of a never-solved stabbing.
Those experiences shaped his views on policing, he said, emphasizing the need for “compassionate crime fighters” while focusing on violent crime and repeat offenders.
“There are some people who are violent in our community who need to go to jail. Period,” Contee said. “There are some people in our community, like my father, who are not violent in nature, who need treatment. . . . I think there is enough space to accomplish both of those things.”
He described himself as an example “of what can happen to young people when given an opportunity,” and he said, “I have not forgotten where I came from.”
Newsham, who Bowser named chief in 2017, announced his departure last month, ending 31 years on the force to take the police chief’s job in Prince William County, Va. He is among many police chiefs in the Washington area and across the country departing amid social change.
Many D.C. Council members feel that predominantly African American neighborhoods are overpoliced, and that Newsham did not readily embrace changes they felt were needed. Newsham accused lawmakers of not fully grasping the devastating toll of violence that he was charged with curbing.
Bowser has accepted some changes pushed through by council members to improve transparency and alter some tactics viewed as overly harsh. But she objected to cutting the police budget by $15 million, which she said would make the District less safe. The cuts are forcing the department to halt hirings and lower the size of the 3,700-member force by as many as 200 officers through attrition.
Contee said he is “concerned about the number of police officers,” noting the rise in some categories of violent crime, and efforts to keep peace during protests that have sometimes become volatile. He joined the police department at a time when it was underfunded, when D.C. police officers fatally shot more people than any other agency in the country.
“I don’t want to regress to that time because of lacking of funding,” Contee said.
The police union said Contee was the favorite of the rank and file, and several council members announced their support as well, though some expressed disappointment Bowser did not conduct a broader search or include the community in her selection process.
“One of the biggest issues we faced this year is public trust and confidence with MPD, the community feeling public safety is not an inclusive process,” said Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). “I think the approach to the selection of the police reinforces that.”
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) called the selection process “a missed opportunity” and vowed to use the confirmation hearings to gauge whether Contee believes changes in the department are warranted and whether he’s capable of improving policing in the District.
“I would love to hear his candid assessment of what percentage of MPD’s sworn personnel actually have the pulse of the community,” he said, “and what’s his overall vision for the department? How does he respond when he hears calls to reform MPD or defund the police?”
Outgoing D.C. Council member David Grosso (D-At Large) said on Twitter that the closed selection process “will only make the next chief’s job more difficult.” And Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said in a text that he thinks Contee “is able to bolster a great balance between community and law enforcement,” but added, “My hope is that he maintains his independent thinking.”
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Justice, which will conduct Contee’s confirmation hearing, said that this moment “demands someone prepared to tackle systemic racism in the District and within policing culture, repair relationships in the communities served by MPD, advance a public health approach to eliminating violence, and use the law and Constitution to demonstrate empathy, humility, innovation and vision.”
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) also said he was disappointed in the lack of public participation or a national search. But he said Contee is “uniquely positioned” to be a transformational leader who has embraced new approaches such as issuing citations for minor offenses instead of making arrests.
Bowser said Tuesday she did not consider anyone for the job other than Contee, whose annual salary will be about $270,000. She said her administration understands the concerns being raised about policing, but she thought it important the department have “solid and steady leadership” without a “prolonged human resources process.”
Over the course of his career, Contee has done virtually every job on the force — from directing traffic to commanding three of the seven district stations and leading five bureaus, putting him in charge at one time or another of human resources, discipline and criminal investigations.
But on Tuesday, Contee introduced himself to residents not with a recitation of his résumé, but of a recollection of his childhood and how persevering through tough times made him the person and the police officer he is today.
With his wife and sister, a former D.C. police officer, watching, he talked about the challenges of growing up in Carver-Langston — then nicknamed “Little Vietnam” — in the 1980s: “shootings, murder, crime, drug dealing, poverty, joblessness, hopelessness, domestic violence, education and health disparities.”
And Contee’s home on 21st Street NE was no sanctuary. Born to a 17-year-old father who sold drugs and then became addicted to crack cocaine and other narcotics, Contee said he “knew the smell of marijuana as a young kid. I remember the smell of PCP packaged in aluminum foil for sale and stashed in a mayonnaise jar in our freezer.” He recalled finding “powdered cocaine stashed in my father’s favorite hiding places.”
Contee talked of his mother, who volunteered at his school to keep an eye on him, of teachers who reached into their own pockets to pay for field trips he couldn’t afford, of neighbors who kept him in line. He credited his mother with instilling honor and said she and his father, despite his struggles, “raised three healthy children. They clothed us, and they loved us.”
He said his father, even while addicted, walked to 21st and Benning every day to catch the X2 bus to work. “He was not violent, he was sick,” Contee said, expressing relief his father escaped incarceration. He said his parents “were my heroes, as imperfect as they are.”
At the same time, Contee assured residents that police under his command “will be relentless in our pursuit of criminals that make our communities unsafe.”
To his officers, he said, “Keep in mind, no matter what happens or how much we’re criticized, we are the chosen guardians of our community.”