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Changing the role of police, and confirming a new police chief in DC

A confluence of timely reports, including Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety by the DC Police reform Commission and pending personnel appointments could impact the future of law enforcement in the nation’s capital . If elected officials constrain their base political ambitions and instincts, District pf Columbia residents may ultimately benefit.

There can be little doubt about Robert J. Contee III’s ability to effect change in the city’s public safety sector. A dynamic, 31-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department, Contee was unanimously confirmed this week by the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety to be the District’s next permanent police chief; the full legislature still must make the final decision.

Contee possesses a deep and intimate understanding of the city, including the history of many of its most vulnerable residents. He grew up in one of DC’s most troubled neighborhoods in a family where both parents suffered from cerebral palsy and where his father, until 11 years ago, used a variety of illegal substances including powdered and crack cocaine.

“I am so thankful that he was never incarcerated because of his addiction. He was not violent; he was sick,” Contee told the council committee during his March 25 confirmation roundtable. “So, when I tell you that I understand the challenges our communities face — our youth and our families — I mean it personally.”

Contee may not have used the word “re-imagining” during his testimony or under the subsequent intense grilling by legislators. That seems to be the path he has charted for himself and his department, however.

Outlining the optimal route for reform was the mission of the council-established DC Police Reform Commission. The 20-member group issued its report earlier this week, which included 90 recommendations. If implemented, some current police duties would shift to other government agencies or community-based organizations. The result, over time, could be a law enforcement system that doesn’t just talk about a public health approach but actually delivers on the promise.

The nexus between the two — commission and police chief — appears to be keeping “the community” safer and more engaged. Each has asserted that DC residents deserve better and that their voices must be heard as reforms are implemented.

“Government, on its best day, cannot do all the things that need to be done if a community has not bought into it,” Contee said during the council hearing.

“The community must be brought into not just the conversation but [also] how the recommendations get implemented,” Robert Bobb, co-chair of the commission and former DC city administrator, said during a recent phone interview.

The commission was established at the urging of at-large Council member Anita Bonds and Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray under the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Act of 2020, which was approved last summer. Among the legislation’s other provisions were prohibition of the use of the chokehold, swift release of police-worn camera footage under select circumstances, limitation of consent searches, and strengthening of the city’s Police Complaints Board.

As it conducted its work, the commission collected data from various agencies and organizations while reviewing existing research into best practices elsewhere. It also held its own racial training sessions to ensure that members set aside any biases — known or unknown.

Specific recommendations by the commission included, expanding the use of crime prevention teams; assigning behavioral professionals the role of first responders to 911 calls for people in mental health crisis; increasing funding for community-based organizations that use a restorative justice approach; increasing financial support for the DC Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants to expand the number of domestic violence advocates available to respond with or without police to calls for assistance; and creating a Deputy Auditor for Public Safety within the Office of the DC Auditor.

Echoing some aspects of a previous report from the Task Force on Jails and Justice, the group also proposed reengineering the DC Office of Unified Communications to ensure the appropriate agency responds, effectively limiting the use of MPD as first responders for non-law-enforcement services; curtailing the department’s stop and search practices; shifting traffic enforcement to the District Department of Transportation; decriminalizing low-level offenses; creating police-free DCPS facilities except where there is extreme danger; and cutting the number of officers on the force. Currently, there are 3,650 active-duty police with the MPD, according to Contee.

“Our recommendations constitute a roadmap for the future of policing in the District,” Bobb told me during a telephone interview.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he cautioned.

Patrice Sulton, executive director of DC Justice Lab and a member of the commission, noted that while she and her colleagues examined best practices nationally, they found that some were “over inclusive or under inclusive of what we need here.” In other words, the recommendations are uniquely tailored to the District. She also acknowledged that there are “things our department does well.”

That’s a critical point to remember, especially since the focus on DC police reform comes as the trial of Derek Chauvin began this week. The former Minneapolis police officer is accused of murdering George Floyd by keeping his knee on Floyd’s neck for at least 9 minutes — as Floyd cried that he couldn’t breathe, and bystanders pleaded for the officer to allow him to sit up.

DC is not Minneapolis. Still, unquestionably some reforms are needed.

Speaking at press conference held to release the report and submit it to the legislature, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson highlight the concerns of many citizens. “The role police in our society is something we view as necessary and of value.” He noted, however, that police and police power “when put up against our democratic principles can be alarming.

“One individual office can deprive an individual citizen of their liberty and even their life,” Mendelson continued.

‘What we need is an examination of the proper balance,” he added.

The question hovering over the commission’s work is whether elected officials should hit the pause button with the arrival of a new, homegrown chief. Should Contee be given time to develop and implement a plan of his own?

He has said that he is “commissioning a national organization” to conduct an internal assessment of MPD’s “organizational health,” looking at policies and practices. The external review is expected to focus on “police services and ensuring unbiased policing efforts.” It also would examine “extremism, hate speech, and white supremacy — assessing processes and practices to eliminate the impacts of each within the [MPD].” Contee has also promised a more targeted approach to crime fighting to avoid trampling on the rights of the innocent.

While advocates and elected officials have already expressed support for some of the reform commission’s expected recommendations that track national trends, there are gaps in the group’s work. It couldn’t secure all the data and documents it wanted and that could have contributed to a fuller analysis of issues in the District.

Sulton mentioned that information sought from the MPD did not come until late in the group’s work. Moreover, she said that — notwithstanding the department’s extensive use of crime statistics — questions about whether or not certain services and practices cause harm are essentially left unexplored and, therefore, unanswered.

“There isn’t a lot of analysis being done by MPD,” continued Sulton, adding that the commission collected enough information to support its recommendations.

Did it?

In its report, the group is expected to call for police-free schools. However, information provided relates only to DCPS facilities. Sources told me that charter schools were not factored into the group’s analysis. The educational sector where more than 40,000 District students are served was not forthcoming. “I wish public charter schools were more transparent,” said one source.

There also are recommendations that demand scrutiny from the public and elected officials. The commission, for instance, has proposed repealing aspects of the domestic violence “mandatory arrest law.”

Really? Ask a woman whose partner has circled back, even after being taken away by police, to beat the hell out of her whether that proposal makes any sense. Anyone who seeks to alter the law should have to show the changes are carefully tailored and won’t lead to police officers letting dangerous people avoid arrest.

Then, there is the idea that the existing Police Complaints Board be renamed the DC Police Commission. As proposed, that entity would have to sign off on MPD policies that are not purely administrative and play a role in selecting the police chief.

Why does the District need a police commission when it has a deputy mayor for public safety and justice whose responsibilities include overseeing MPD and all it does? The added bureaucracy would suck up more taxpayer money without necessarily improving law enforcement; it would also undermine Contee’s tenure even before it begins.

Most troublesome, at least for me, is the push to cut the number of active-duty police officers. The commission is expected to recommend repealing the statutory mandate for a minimum number of officers.

Last year, when the council caught the defund police fever, Council member Charles Allen, chair of the public safety committee, technically didn’t cut the force. The legislature instead refused to fund Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget increase, which, among other things, would have expanded the police cadets — a program Contee joined at age 17, leading to his stellar career in policing. Allen made clear at the time that he would return this year with more reforms that could lead to additional budget cuts for MPD.

Driving that agenda into the 2022 budget could harm the District and its residents.

Contee has said he needs 4,000 officers. As partial justification, he cited the rise in violent crime and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Who knows how much damage insurrectionists, intent on destroying a symbol of this country’s democracy, could have done had they not been stopped by MPD and later the National Guard? What would have happened if those thousands of white supremacists and domestic terrorists were not content to restrict their attack to the federal enclave that day? Would they have marched into the city and its neighborhoods?

Equally significant to Contee’s argument for a full complement of officers is this point from his council testimony: “A neighborhood cannot heal, cannot grow, cannot get better, if we still have carnage.”

I cannot disagree. Can you?

This is the updated version of an article that appeared on April 1 in TheDCLine. (photo by

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