Robert Contee was named chief of the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) on January 2, four days before the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

He spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about the insurrection at the Capitol, as well as his career development with the MPD.

Wexler: Where were you when you heard about what was occurring at the Capitol on January 6?

Chief Contee: I was on Independence Avenue not far from the Capitol. Shortly after we got the call to assist the U.S. Capitol Police, I was at the west front of the Capitol, where the insurrection was taking place. We got the call about 1:00. By the time I was on the grounds of the Capitol it may have been about 1:10.

Once I got to the west front of the Capitol, what I saw was horrifying. I saw Americans, some waving Blue Lives Matter flags and some waving American flags. People were assaulting police officers and spraying officers with bear spray. I remember seeing blood on the landing on the west front of the Capitol, where some of my officers were injured. As I was making my way down the steps to the west front, I encountered several MPD officers who had been overcome by pepper spray, bear spray, and anything else that was being sprayed.

In the midst of everything going on, I took my phone out and called the mayor from the west front of the Capitol. I gave her an assessment of the situations, made recommendations about a curfew and Metro. I remember coughing as I was talking to her because the pepper spray and bear spray were so thick in the air. My chief of staff was with me and his eyes started to be impacted by it.

It was quite a horrific scene to see.

Wexler: MPD responded very quickly. Is that because you’re accustomed to mutual aid requests in the city?

Chief Contee: Absolutely. As we strategized, the Capitol was a focal point for us, which is why units were able to get there so quickly. We also had to think about the local communities we’re responsible for, so it was critically important to strategically place those resources.

As this started to unfold, two pipe bombs were discovered at the RNC and DNC. It was another thing for us to deal with. We didn’t know where other devices might be located, either around federal buildings or in our neighborhoods.

Wexler: Have you ever seen your officers in a battle like this before?

Chief Contee: No, this is one of the most gut-wrenching things I’ve seen. I’ve been with this agency since 1989 as a cadet and sworn since 1992. In my 30-plus years with MPD, I’ve never seen anything like that. We’ve had some riots, and we had some riots over the summer where people were looting businesses. But this was straight-up physical combat directed at the police.

We’ve had other instances when rocks, bottles, and bricks have been thrown at the police. But this was a constant, drawn-out, all-out battle. Five minutes is a long time to be fighting anybody, and five hours is an extremely long time to be fighting.

These were not demonstrators, they were rioters. This was an all-out assault. We had officers who were injured, battered, bruised, stepping off the line, temporarily recovering, and reengaging the fight. I’ve never seen anything like that, maybe with the exception of Game of Thrones. Never in my law enforcement career in the District of Columbia have I seen anything like that.

Wexler: What was your message to your officers after this incident?

Chief Contee: I want them to know how incredibly proud of them I am. I think that even the day of the attack, some of them probably did not realize the gravity of what was taking place. I told them that MPD and the other law enforcement agencies involved are responsible for restoring democracy in our country.

That is something that will be written in the history books and talked about for years to come. We talk about 1814, when the Capitol was taken over by the British during the War of 1812. The next time we’re having that kind of discussion is 2021, and MPD, along with its partner agencies, was on the front lines defending this country’s democracy. We had the Vice President of the United States and members of Congress basically trapped inside the United States Capitol while there were people outside we knew were armed and had bad intentions. We know this was planned. We know this was coordinated, and there was communication.

This was bad enough for our country, but I think it really could have been a lot worse. Some who participated in this lost their lives, and police officers lost their lives. We have officers who are dealing with mental health concerns as a result of this.

The impact is great, and I wanted the MPD officers to understand the gravity of this situation and how heroic their efforts were. I don’t want that to be overshadowed by anything. People are going to criticize and say what people should’ve done beforehand, but I don’t know too many living people who have been in the middle of an insurrection. We’ll peel back the layers and see what we could’ve done better, but I’m proud of the work those officers did that day.

Chuck Wexler: Can you tell us about your background? What was it like growing up in Washington, D.C., and why did you want to join the Metropolitan Police Department?

Chief Contee: I’m a hometown kid, and I really grew up during the crack cocaine era in a neighborhood called Carver Terrace. That neighborhood had a lot of challenges. Back then you really stayed isolated in your neighborhood, so you didn’t have an understanding of all the great things this city had to offer.

I ended up at the Metropolitan Police Department because it was an opportunity and a way out of the environment I was in. It exposed me to things outside my community and even outside the city. I wanted to get more out of life, and the Metropolitan Police Department was the vehicle to make that happen. I’m very thankful that my city gave me a fair shot.

Wexler: Who had a significant impact on you growing up?

Chief Contee: It was my mom and my dad, although that was a difficult story. Although my dad was present in the home, he was really a victim of everything going on. He was addicted to drugs. He sold drugs. He sold drugs out of our house at one point.

There weren’t necessarily many positive influences in that environment. But there were several DC public school teachers who invested in me as I was growing up at all stages – elementary school, middle school, and high school.

In my family, my mom’s sister was a DC police officer, and she was another positive influence.

There are a lot of kids who grew up in my neighborhood and have the same story. With the intervention of teachers and other positive influences, they were able to make their way out of pretty bad situations, even though we may not have known it was bad at the time.

Wexler: How was your experience as a cadet in the Metropolitan Police Department?

Chief Contee: That was the single most important thing that changed my trajectory. At the time, if you had enough credits, the police cadet program allowed you to go to school half the day and be part of the police department and go to the academy the other half, and get paid for it. So as a kid growing up in Carver Terrace without much family income, I could contribute financially to the household, be in school, and start a career path at the same time in my 12th grade year. I’m really happy I took that road.

Wexler: The Metropolitan Police Department faced a lot of issues when you first started. What was the department like then?

Chief Contee: We were in bad shape in the early ‘90s, when I joined the department. To be quite frank, I considered leaving the agency around 1995-1996 to go someplace else, because we had such a bad reputation. We were one of the deadliest police departments in the country. We didn’t have the best training. We didn’t have the best equipment. Cars were falling apart. Officers were out there buying tires for cars.

And we had an issue with the integrity of the agency. Several officers went to jail back then. We had an infamous scandal where 12 police officers went to jail for protecting what they perceived to be a drug cartel.

Wexler: What was it like when Charles Ramsey arrived to MPD in 1998?

Chief Contee: At first, the reaction was, “Who is this guy coming in here from Chicago?” He was an outsider coming into this police agency that has always had someone from inside the agency become the chief of police. But I remember thinking that maybe we needed a fresh start with somebody who might have a fresh perspective and bring something different to the table. What we were doing and the cycle we were in did not benefit this agency. The only way for us to restore our credibility with the community was to have someone come in who wasn’t familiar with MPD.

When Chuck Ramsey came in, he was straight-talking and had credibility. I gravitated to him because he had been a police cadet in Chicago. He instantly got my attention.

Some of the things he did, we had never seen in this agency. He started working groups to assess where we were as an agency, and spoke with people internally and in the broader community. His motto for the department was, “Be a part of something special.” It really got people excited about being Metropolitan police officers again.  And it created excitement within the ranks of the agency. I was ecstatic when I had an opportunity to meet him. And, as they years went on, I got to observe how he worked from different angles within the agency. I was selected as a Patrol Service Area sergeant, and they told us that the sergeants should be like the sheriffs of their own little police departments. I gravitated towards having a part of the city I was responsible for.

Some were skeptics, because those in law enforcement tend to be skeptical by nature. But Chief Ramsey had me hook, line, and sinker from the beginning.  I had been thinking about leaving the department, but when he came in and was so intentional about the way he did his business, it caused me to reassess leaving the department, and I’m glad I stayed.

Wexler: And he moved you to the homicide division, correct?

Chief Contee: Yes. In 2003 or 2004, I had moved up in the department and was a lieutenant over the intelligence branch. Chief Ramsey tasked me with several things that were outside my comfort zone. One was the Gang Intervention Partnership, which he created. We had several murders that occurred in the Latino community involving Latino gangs, and I didn’t speak Spanish. But he made me responsible for standing up a new unit and doing a lot of work with the intelligence unit that ultimately helped the homicide branch close several murders and shootings involving these Latino gangs.

After that stint in the intelligence branch, I was on the list to be promoted to captain. I was 31 and did not have my college degree at the time. He took a bold step and did not send me to a patrol district when he promoted me. He sent me to the homicide branch. I was a little overwhelmed by the decision, and I was not certain that it was something I wanted to do. I never had an interest in being a homicide detective. And we had homicide detectives who were very experienced in their craft, and I came in as a 31-year-old guy who hasn’t investigated any homicides and now would be the boss of the unit. I was a little nervous about that.

He told me that my job was not to go in there and investigate homicides. My job was to lead the people and make sure they had the things they needed. He told me major city chiefs live and die by their homicide closure rates. That increased the pressure, but I understood the significance of what he was doing and the risk he was taking on a guy like me.

It turned out to be a pivotal moment in my career, and changed how I saw the department. He encouraged me to get my college degree, which I did. He sent me to SMIP. And ultimately, under his leadership, I ended up being one of our patrol commanders, as well as commander of our Special Operations Division. It was a remarkable time in my career, and I certainly learned a great deal from him.

Wexler:  Cathy Lanier and Pete Newsham also had important roles in your career, right?

Chief Contee:  Yes – as we are having this conversation, I’m looking at three pictures prominently displayed in my office of my law enforcement heroes: Chuck Ramsey, Cathy Lanier, and Pete Newsham. They are a large part of the reason I’m sitting in this seat right now. Chuck Ramsey started it all by building the bench in MPD and investing in us. He took chances on all of us. Cathy Lanier was early in her career, and Ramsey took chances on her. Pete Newsham was early in his career, and I think was one of the youngest assistant chiefs when he was in that role under Chief Ramsey.

Now, in hindsight, I look back and see what he was doing. He was creating a legacy within MPD of great individuals who grew up within this agency and have led this agency after he left.

Wexler: Did you ever imagine you’d be leading the agency through an incident like January 6th?

Chief Contee: I have a tie clip that I’ve been wearing ever since I got it from the chief’s office as a young cadet. It has the badge for the chief of police for Washington, DC on it. I would always look down and think, “Maybe one day I could. Wouldn’t it be something if I did.” Time went on and the stars aligned.

It’s an honor, and I’m humbled by the opportunity to serve this department and my community in this capacity. I’m thankful to our mayor for having the faith in me to lead this department. And I’ve been tested these past few weeks as the eyes of the world have been on the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.